Hamilton Engle: Iowa's Poet Laureate
Hamilton Engle was born in 1908 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He grew up the
son of a livery stable owner, a background he never forgot. As
Engle states in the dedication of his loving account about his youth
A Lucky American Childhood: "I had a lucky life. Such a way
will never be lived here again. It has gone with the wild-buffalo
skinners and the Indian fighters, with my mother's hands whose tough
calluses tore the sheets as she made my bed, with that marvelous rich
reek of harness and saddle leather, of horse manure and sweat, which I
happily breathed each day." He was born to Evelyn (Eva) May Engle
and Thomas (Tom) A. Engle, and was the third of four children. Along
with his older brother Charles (Bob) Glenn, older sister Alice, and
younger sister Kathryn, Engle grew up in a house, located at 1602 5th
Ave. SE, that had been built by friends of his father.
family's financial situation was not the best: "Father working from 6
a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week, never made enough money in one year
to pay income tax, but he fed and housed a hungry family of six without
complaint. Nor did we feel sorry for ourselves, living by a
simple and ancient principle: people were put on this earth for work,
horses, each other, and God. In that order." Even though he
enjoyed the aspects and smells of the horse life, as a young boy, Paul
Engle also found a new love:
I was lucky to have so many good smells in my
life: horse manure at Father's barn, oiled leather harnesses, . . . the
scent of horse that never left my father's clothes . . . If some
almighty power were to say to me, "Pick any smell you want and I will
send you a bottle," I would ask for the fragrance of a newspaper ten
seconds from the press. It has body and liveliness, and there is
nothing like it. A hundred perfumes have only subtle differences,
but fresh newspaper bulls it way through all of them, putting black ink
on the fingers and a quick wood smell in the nose. But there was
one perfume I will not forget, it was rank, warm, sensual.
As a boy, Engle sold newspapers to the factory workers at Quaker Oats
and followed his route to the city limits where coyotes howled at the
moon. It was a job that served a dual purpose: it introduced him
to the news of the world, of Iowa, and of Cedar Rapids, and it helped
him earn seven dollars a month, money that he put away in his
college fund to help his parents finance the college education he
wanted. As Paul walked the darkened city streets at night
delivering the Cedar Rapids paper to each door along his route, not
only did he get to know, admire, and interact with the people and
streets of Cedar Rapids, he also gained pride. A feeling that
never left him. As he states in the closing remarks to his
chapter "News and the Boy" in A Lucky American Childhood: "For
me as a child, selling and delivering newspapers was an intense and
often fiery career. I was proud of it. I am still proud of
When he was a teenager, Engle left the newspaper business to become a
soda-jerk at a local Cedar Rapids drugstore. The change from the
"rank . . . blood-enriching odor" of his Father's barn to the "delicate
fragrances" of the drugstore where he worked was a natural transition
for Engle. As with his other jobs, Engle took on a certain pride
in his job at the drugstore where he worked late afternoons and
evenings. In addition to learning a lot about the world of a
drugstore, Engle also received an invaluable education in the world of
After the perfume and tobacco counters, my
favorite place was the magazine rack. By the time I began to work
at the drugstore I was writing poetry and reading everything. The
boss . . . was proud of this. He ordered magazines knowing that
they would never sell but that I would read every page. There was
Transitions from Paris, where I first read
James Joyce and the poet Eluard and others who later became
famous. There was Poetry: Magazine of Verse from
Chicago. Not one copy was ever sold, but in it I read T.S. Eliot,
Carl Sandburg, Edgar Lee Masters, Ezra Pound.
addition to reading the poetry magazine of the time, Engle also spent
some of his time writing his poetry on the prescription pads that
rested on his counter.
the fall of 1927, he became a student of Coe College, and the first
person in his family to attend college. While at Coe, he
developed a writing style that spoke of Iowa and its people. It
was at Coe that the writing of this renowned man of letters started to
develop. I had the privilege to search through many of his personal
papers and study many of Paul Engle's earlier writings that appeared in
Coe publications, including editions of the Acorn, Coe
College Catalogue, Coe Courier, and The Caravan.
The 1931 edition of Coe's Acorn shows a somber, younger Paul
Engle just on the brink of his genius. A heading above his
picture states only: Paul H. Engle, Cedar Rapids, IA, The Writer's
Club. The Writer's Club was formed around 1926 and consisted of
students who had been elected to the club. During the course of
his studies at Coe, Engle participated in the club, at one time serving
as its secretary. In 1927, the club started The Caravan,
a publication that printed creative writings by the members of the
club. It is in The Caravan, that many of Engle's writings
were first published. His poem "Prairie Winds" published in
the May 1928 Caravan won third prize in the Ladies' Literary
Club. A prize that Engle would win twice more. He won
second prize in 1930, and in 1931 took top honors in the contest.
Like his later works, the poetry that Engle published in The Caravan
had strong metaphors rooted in nature, seeking ways to compare and
contrast human nature with the natural world. The obvious ties to
the surroundings in which he grew up in are also evident in his
interest in the senses. In A Lucky American Childhood,
Engle describes how important his senses were to him:
The senses of our tough but delicate bodies
seemed to be tougher and more delicate earlier in this century than
today. I remember it as a more sensuous time, when we lived
closer to the physical world enriching our nose, hands, ears, eyes, and
tongue. Many of the smells, touches, sounds, sights and tastes
have wholly disappeared or are rare, the lost enrichment of our
lives. Of course, horses still exist in the country, but they are
not carrying people on city streets or plowing fields. How many
horses do you see each day? When I was a kid, every day we saw
those handsome animals trotting, heard them whinnying, knew their many
of Engle's poems in The Caravan portray the natural world,
with a strong emphasis on farming and the people who work at it
daily. These images are similar to the images that appear
in his later poetry.
Paul Engle graduated magna cum laude in 1931 with a Bachelor's
of Arts Degree in English. His Major Honor's Thesis was "Revelations
of John Keats and Leigh Hunt." The following year, he studied
and wrote for a year at the University of Iowa and gained his M.A.
degree. In 1932, his work started paying off: "I won a very large
fellowship to Columbia University . . .the Yale Series of Younger Poets
Prize for publication of a first book, and a Rhodes Scholarship.
Never was there such a miraculous year in my life up to then, and never
again." After completing his work as Rhodes Scholar at Oxford
University, Engle was appointed the special lecturer in the school of
letters at the University of Iowa in 1937. This position allowed
him to preside over round table discussions and lead seminars on
writing at the University. It was at this time that Engle created
and taught in the Writer's Workshop. In their book Coe at 125,
Jack Laugen and Florence Winkler offer this description of the workshop:
At its inception, the workshop was deemed a
risky project, but it was one he believed in wholeheartedly, hoping it
would enable young writers to learn. And in the years since its
inception, the workshop has drawn authors and poets from across the
country, including playwright Tennessee Williams, poet Robert Lowell,
short story writer Flannery O'Conner, and novelists Phillip Roth,
Robert Pen Warren, Kurt Vonnegut and William Price Fox.
Engle directed the workshop from 1943 to 1966. In 1946, he
received the degree of Doctor of Letters from Coe College. In
1952, Coe awarded him the Alumni Award of Merit. Engle's citation for
the award was presented by Russell Knapp (class of 1930) and it read:
"He senses the goodness of America--the nobility of humble
people. His poetry is fresh, vital, and vigorous. As
professor of English and director of creative writing at University or
Iowa, he as attracted young writers from all over the world."
In 1967, with his wife, Chinese novelist Hualing Nieh Engle, he
established the International Writing Program at the University of
Iowa, a program that encourages creative interaction among gifted young
writers from around the world. The Engles' work was recognized in
1976 when the 24 members of their International Writing Program from 24
nations submitted their names to the Swedish committee who awards the
Nobel Peace Prize. In 1978 they were formally recognized with a
In 1976, Engle became one of the first people to be awarded Coe's
highest honor, the Coe Founders' Medal. Two years later, Engle
was named the honorary poet laureate of Iowa by resolution of the Iowa
House of Representatives. The University of Iowa also honored him
as one of 10 recipients of the Distinguished Alumni Achievement
Awards. To further add to his notable accomplishments, in 1990 he
received the Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts from the
American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Throughout his impressive local, state-wide, national, and
international work, Paul Engle never forgot about the small liberal
arts college where he started his post-secondary education. After
his graduation from Coe, Engle attended most of his class reunions and
dedicated many of his texts and manuscripts to the library where he
spent so much time. A personal letter written to his friend
Reginald Waller in January of 1988 beautifully portrays the deep
attachment he had to Coe:
I always try to include Coe, out of deep
loyalty, in any vita information about my life, but the book THE WORLD
COMES TO IOWA was put in its final form (including jacket copy) in my
absence and I did not write the informational paragraph. This was
done under pressure of a deadline for having copies ready at the 20th
Anniversary Celebration in October. When I met my "Senior Tutor"
at Oxford the first time he asked me, "And what was your School?" He
meant, which of the famous English Public Schools I had attended.
I told hom [sic], "Coe, Sir." He replied in agitation, "But Coe
is not a School. They are called Eton, Harrow, St.
Paul's. Pray where is this strange place?" By the time I had told
him Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he was too confused to go on and closed the
talk by saying, "Nemmind. It must be somewhere and you must be
here. Now to business."
I send all my books to Coe Library and will
send a few copies to it next week asking that some be given to
President Brown in case they could help in fund-raising, that beast
which must be forever tamed. I now intend to give all my books
not designated for family to Coe (the University wants them!), along
with my Marvin Cone "door" painting and perhaps a couple of other oils
of real value, and some masks and the manuscript to my chapter on Coe
in ENGLE COUNTY: Memoirs, with such other items as have interest or
value. This assumes Coe has no need for Hauling's extensive
library in Chinese. Would letters be wanted, to me or from
me? If I can find that manuscript of my poem LIBRARY, do you want
it? Have you the beautiffully [sic] printed poem?
Paul Engle passed away in 1991 leaving behind the rich legacy of his
poetry and other collected writings in addition to the unparalleled
achievements of the Writer's Workshop and International Writing
Program, unquestionably the most prestigious creative writing program
in the world. He also passed on to his alma mater an invaluable
bequest of books and papers. As a reminder of all the memories that Coe
gave this distinguished man of letters, reprinted below is the
"beautiffuly printed poem" mentioned in the previous letter:
(written on the 50th Anniversary Reunion of the Coe College Class of
burns the trembling hand.
Cold freezes the fire fingers.
Rock breaks the unbending bone.
books can grasp you by the throat and kill.
to a library, listen. You can hear
The books inside their bindings breathe aloud.
Hear reckless phrases howling from their type,
Hear jokes tickling you ear like a fine feather,
Hear screams of rage, delight, and agony.
books have brutal teeth that snap and bite,
Collared like dogs we lead them on a tight leash.
of men and women cry
Out of silence from that printed page.
books, soft as a hand, caress your hand.
the library, its books are sticks
Of dangerous dynamite that men have dropped.
When they explode, governments disappear.
covers hold ideas like live steam--
Open them, they shatter your live face.
mind is a gun shooting at history.
than a rocket's fuel--
The sky's the limit in a fury of fire.
are alive, walls tremble, books
bounce on their shelves. In terrible times
Enter, your life comforted by their lives.