Remembering Paul Engle in Iowa City

When Literary Life Was Still Piled Up In A Few Places

I first came to Iowa City in 1954, driving an old '42 Dodge which I had bought from a German exile in Boston for $65. I spent a couple of weeks on the way at the famous literary summer school in Bloomington, Indiana. John Crowe Ransom gave a talk on "A Litany in Time of Plague" by Thomas Nashe. One stanza reads:

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closed Helen's eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord have mercy on us!

He noted that most teachers describe this poem as iambic, but if you speak the poem passionately, your voice will tell you the meter is not iambic at all. Powerful beats come in at the start of each line, so the meter is an imitation of the old Greek and Roman rhythms.

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector brave,
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
Come! come! the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord have mercy on us!

This marvelous lecture gave hints of new possibilities beyond the iambic mode I had been taught. I also saw William Empson with his long beard riding down the street on a bicycle. I mention these details only to give a sense of what high or elegant literary life was like in those days. It wasn't spread all over the country, so to speak, to a depth of one or two inches as it is now. Instead it piled up in separate places such as Gambier, Ohio, or Bloomington, Indiana, or even Iowa City, at a height of six or seven feet. I remember hearing that Robert Lowell, on his first honeymoon, pitched his tent on Allen Tate's lawn. He had a fine instinct for where the water was high. Jean Stafford later complained that he kept leaving her alone in the tent; he was always inside talking with the Tates.

When my $65 dollar car finally approached the center of Iowa City, I was astounded. The buildings were two stories high only. I guess I must have had in mind some sort of image as that I've just given, an image that associates literary intensity with physical heights, which may have translated itself into high buildings. I felt dismayed. I knew Robert Lowell had been teaching in Iowa City, and I said to myself, "What kind of country is this in which a poet that great is teaching in a town with two story buildings?" There's a lot wrong with my perception, but I was so self-centered and full of fantasies that there's not much use going into the inaccuracies. One could say that it wasn't as if Lowell had been exiled. Paul Engle, with his useful and intelligent impulse toward concentration of literary intensity, had called him there, and Lowell understood. Lowell's acceptance was a compliment to Paul's grasp of the way literature proceeds. A year or two later Engle brought in John Berryman; and Phil Levine's marvelous essay about Berryman's teaching in The Bread of Time suggests perfectly the way the physical presence of one superb writer, in this case Berryman, can change the life, and restructure the body cells, so to speak, of a younger writer ready to be made more intense.

I had come to Iowa hoping for a writing grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, but when I arrived, I heard it had gone to another, and so there I was in Iowa City with no money and no life. I went to see Paul Engle, and after some conversations with Ray West, and the head of freshman English, I was allowed to come into the workshop and given two classes to teach, one in freshman English and one called "Greeks and the Bible." The salary was $100 a month for each, as I recall, so there I was. I could get by on $200 a month, living in a tiny room and eating at a boarding house. Paul was generous, straightforward; he loved poetry, knew good poetry when he saw it, and was no slouch at building a program.

My only other workshop had been at Harvard with Archibald MacLeish. Among the participants were John Hawkes, Kenneth Koch, Don Hall, Mit Hughes, Bob Crichton, Bill Emerson. Most were World War II veterans, just now back in college, and all we did was attack Archibald MacLeish and belittle his friends such as Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway. We rarely discussed our own work. Our behavior was outrageous, and it took MacLeish a long time to get over it. So when I sat down in Paul Engle's workshop, it was the first time I had ever seen that strange thing, blue dittoed poems. I was amazed. It seemed beneath the dignity of art to mimeograph poems. We didn't attack the teacher this time; in general, the aggression went against each other. Everyone knew that W. D. Snodgrass, the graduate of an earlier workshop and still hovering in the neighborhood somewhere, had done something introspective and important in poems later called Heart's Needle. But he had to be careful if he turned up, because knives seemed to be out for him. That's the way I recall it. I don't recall being aggressive myself, but perhaps my memory is bad. I do remember hearing around 1975 a story of my behavior in the Iowa workshop twenty years earlier. It seems that I regularly brought a snake to class with me in a gunny sack, and whenever someone began to criticize a poem of mine, I would take the snake out and lay it on the table. I was amazed to be imagined as a snake handler. But we can feel several kinds of fear in this story

The workshop discussions were actually a little pedestrian; certain fads among the poets would dominate for a while. That's always the case with workshops. At the end Paul would come in and say rather sensible remarks. Given my history with MacLeish, whose lofty pronouncements floated down from some earlier heaven, this workshop was my first experience of literary democracy, even perhaps of that horizontal and envy-ridden culture which I later called sibling.

This piece will be more a memoir of the time than of Paul himself, but the literary excitement and dedication we all experienced was due to Paul's sagacity. The teaching most of us did made our lives rather hectic, and I commented in my diary, "In such a hectic life no large work can be conceived." I wrote in my diary one day, "I could work today only from 2:45, when I got back from a conference with Paul Engle, till 3:30, when I had to go to Muncie. Then I worked again from 5:30 to 5:45, hardly one hour altogether. I wrote the poem for Paul Engle, or rather attempted it. How wonderful it is to write poems for someone who cares about you!" So it was clear that I felt a lot of affection and support coming from him.

I also found notes from a conversation I had had with Paul, in which I remarked, "Paul's greatest need is precisely to be needed." So he and I were much alike in that way. He gave me advice on a group of poems I showed him, poems full of Ideas for poems and Possibilities for inner life. To me he always talked straight; he warned me about my grandiosity and my tendency to live six lives at once. His advice was very good: "Do one thing, not many." These were warnings that didn't do much good.

Many lively events happened in our workshops, and many able writers came to speak, but I failed to notice most of them. One personality did become vivid to me, a Korean short story writer, Kim Yong Ik, whom Paul had recruited for the fiction workshop. He and I would walk out in the Iowa City cemetery and look at the black-wingéd angel and talk about art. He looked at the creation of art as a marvelous opportunity which in the course of human life, may arrive as a real possibility only once in every ninth or tenth generation. It had come to him. Dostoevsky was our hero, who would talk to himself in his room while he imagined some character in his fiction, and then he would weep over what had happened to that person. "Surely this is what writing really is–to give all," Kim said. And when we parted near dawn, he would say, "Tomorrow morning we must work very hard." He knew a lot. One day I brought to him a poem that I had begun in New York, and it said something like:

I wander down the streets, not knowing
Who I am, and I am lost.

Kim said, "Oh no. If you say you're lost, that means you're already partly found. If someone is in the woods and truly lost, he doesn't even know that he's lost."

I was stunned. "Well, what do I do then?"

"You just take out the phrase 'I am lost.' Then you compose some images that seem not to belong exactly, rationally. Then when the reader experiences those images, he will say, 'This kid is lost!'" I've been grateful for that for years.

He didn't believe in Western competition. Sometimes when we walked in the cemetery, he'd say, looking at the large stones and the small ones, "You see, even after death they're still competing." I asked him about Korean graveyards. He mentioned a graveyard with wooden markers in his town that stood on a slope. After a few years, the markers and graves would all wash down the slope. I must mention that Kim who had lived for many years in Pittsburgh, writing well, died only a few months ago, during an emotional trip back to Korea.

I noted in my diary, "William Carlos Williams is coming next Monday." He read his poems in the old Capitol Building on campus. The head of the English department introduced him and said, "Tonight we have William Carlos Williams, one of the finest poets now writing in English." Williams stood up and said, "Goddam it! How many times do I have to tell you, I write in American, not in English!" That's what he was like. I loved him, and had hitchhiked to see him when I was an undergraduate.

Later in the spring, Robert Lowell came back for a visit, though he wasn't teaching at the workshop while I was there. I heard that he was staying at Ray West's house, so I sent a manuscript and, calling, asked if I could talk to him. He replied that he had to leave for the airport at such and such a time, but I could come. Here's how I described the fast glimpse of him in my journal: "He stood there hunched, a weight behind his eyes–gentle, graceful, unburning–wise in adaptation. How I trembled to meet him. How odd a poet is in this housey world, simply growing older among small things and small talk. What graceful hands draped questioningly at his chin . . . Marvelous is the word for him." I didn't describe our actual conversation in the diary. When I arrived, he was chatting with Ray West and Delmore Schwarz's first wife, getting ready to go to the airport. As they exchanged remarks, I was amazed to hear that the subject was William Carlos Williams, and his bad poems, ridiculous attitudes, his provincialism, etc. I began to burn. I knew that Williams had been and still was a sort of foster father to Lowell; Williams acted helpfully to balance the influence of Lowell's other, more conservative foster father, Allen Tate. Finally I spoke from my corner of the room, and said this wasn't a true picture of William Carlos Williams or his poetry. All three turned and looked at me as people look at a cockroach. They went on talking, but moved on to another subject. I waited further. Finally Lowell said, looking at his watch, "All right, come on over." He had in his hand the little manuscript I'd given him; he had picked out a brief poem that I had written the year before while living in New York and virtually as a hobo. After being cooped up in the city for months, I drove with friends in someone else's car down through Maryland and felt amazed by the great trees. The poem goes:

With pale women in Maryland,
Passing the proud and tragic pastures,
And stupefied with love
And the stupendous burdens of the foreign trees,
As all before us lived, dazed
With overabundant love in the reach of the Chesapeake,
Past the tobacco warehouse, through our dark lives
Like those before, we move to the death we love
With pale women in Maryland.

I was uncertain about the poem, uncertain about everything. What he said took me by surprise. He said, "Do you know which county you were passing through in Maryland?" "No," I said. "Well you could find that out," he said, "then go there; or go to a library and find out details of the history of that county. That's what I do," he said. "In that situation, I look up all the historical facts I can, find who founded that county, what sort of crimes took place, who introduced the tobacco farming, and so on. Then as I rewrite I try to get as many of those facts as I can into the poem." He wasn't unkind. At least his advice was clear. But I slumped out and was depressed for two or three weeks, saying to myself, "Well, that's it. If that's how a genuine poem is done, I can't do it. I'm not a poet." I didn't look at the poem again for a long time. Six years later, when I was gathering poems for what was at last to be my first book, Silence in the Snowy Fields, I found the poem again and realized that Lowell had been wrong. Some poems don't have historical facts, they just float. This particular poem is a bit elevated and naively romantic in its juvenile love of death, but still it has its integrity like a haiku or a small Chinese lyric. If one puts extraneous, interesting facts into such a poem, it will sink to the bottom of the river. I recalled a poem of Tu Fu's that Kim had often recited to me in Iowa City, a kind of exile's poem:

At the end of the mountain gorge
I hear dark monkeys wail,
In native land a white goose flies over.
Where are my sisters?
Where are my brothers?

This poem could use a few historical facts, perhaps, but if its aim is grief, it's best left as it is.

Paul and Mary would have big parties up at their stone house in Stone City, and I became fond of their children. In the spring of 1956, my wife Carol MacLean and I and Lew Harbison, a student of mine, and his wife went down to the Mississippi River bottoms a few miles south of Iowa City, all wet springiness and tall bare trees and flat ground recently abandoned by the river. High in a tree we saw two young great horned owls. Using a thin movable dead tree, we managed to push the owls along until they fell off the branch. Then we put them in a box and brought them back to Iowa City. I planned to bring the owls north to the Minnesota farm later that week. When Paul heard about the owls, he asked if I would bring them into his daughter's third grade class for the children to see. I did, and the little owls were spectacular, full of feistiness, with huge, intense eyes, like novelists or generals. A few days later, I did drive them up to the farm in Minnesota and let them go, and they were both around there in the draw for years, hooting to each other and wondering what happened to the Mississippi River flats.

When I heard in 1975 or so the story about the gunny sack I would take to class with the snake in it, I realized that it was the same story: the human proclivities for envy, projection and malice had altered the tale of two half-grown owls in a cardboard box in the third grade to a snake in a gunny sack in a graduate school classroom. So it is.

These adventures, these meetings with writers, this gathering place for people sick of small towns, all rose from Paul's sagacity. It was Paul who asked Marguerite Young, that amazing poet, essayist, raconteur, surrealist, fictionalist, to come to town. In my last dip into my diary, I'll put down a few sentences about her:

Tonight I met Marguerite Young and once more the real world returns. Words, vision, meditation, the incredible greatness and sweetness of those on the limb of words. It is all words, and how the whole world dissolves away and leaves in its place the love for those people, and these people, who so love and in return are loved by words. Look into your heart; disregard the world of classes and deadlines and the blue world crossed with red, that entices and takes all away, that one cannot love. Love those who love words, and restrict your friendship to those.