Cover image for A community of writers : Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers' Workshop
A community of writers : Paul Engle and the Iowa Writers' Workshop
Dana, Robert, 1929-2010.
Publication Information:
Iowa City : University of Iowa Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xii, 294 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
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PS3509.N44 Z53 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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With these words, written long before his Iowa Writers' Workshop became world famous, much imitated, and academically rich, Paul Engle captured the spirit behind his beloved workshop. Now, in this collection of essays by and about those writers who shared the energetic early years, Robert Dana presents a dynamic, informative tribute to Engle and his world.

The book's three sections mingle myth and history with style and grace and no small amount of humor. The beginning essays are given over to memories of Paul Engle in his heyday. The second group focuses particularly on those teachers--Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Kurt Vonnegut, for example--who made the workshop hum on a day-to-day basis. Finally, the third section is devoted to storytelling: tall tales, vignettes, surprises, sober and not-so-sober moments. Engle's own essay, "The Writer and the Place," describes his "simple, and yet how reckless" conviction that "the creative imagination in all of the arts is as important, as congenial, and as necessary, as the historical study of all the arts."

Today, of course, there are hundreds of writers' workshops, many of them founded and directed by graduates of the original Iowa workshop. But when Paul Engle arrived in Iowa there were exactly two. His indomitable nature and great persuasive powers, combined with his distinguished reputation as a poet, loomed large behind the enhancement of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. This volume of fine and witty essays reveals the enthusiasm and drive and sheer pleasure that went into Iowa's renowned workshop.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Through the recollections of graduates and teachers, this book recalls the early years of the fabled Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. Paul Engle, the program's charismatic founder and director, was uncompromising in his efforts to help writers along, stocking the teaching faculty with luminaries while trolling America for the most promising young writers, for whom he arranged generous fellowships. Engle was also a social force. R.V. Cassill recalls an oyster feast thrown for the students: "No one can underestimate how much drunkenness there was in those days nor how much Paul incited it, because it was certainly not liquor alone that made us drunk." But Engle could be uncompromisingly harsh, too: Kiyohiro Miura recounts Engle urging him, about a review of Kenneth Rexroth's translations, "Make it tough. That's our way." W.D. Snodgrass recalls suddenly falling out of Engle's favor and having his fellowship cut off without warning. And there were other problems: the geniuses brought in to teach were all deeply troubledÄ"a whole generation of gifted but dangerously driven poets," in Snodgrass's words. Robert Lowell, John Berryman and Randall Jarrell all left indelible marks on their gifted students. But between all the excesses of drunkenness and meannessÄremembered here in absorbing detailÄtheir generosity and dedication also emerge. Philip Levine recalls: "Berryman never failed in his obligations as a teacher... he brought to our writing a depth of insight and care we did not know existed." Legions of imitator workshops mark the impact of Engle's endeavor. But his fondest hope was that his workshop would be a "community." These poetic memoirs confirm his success. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One     The Writer and the Place     It was a vision.     By vision, I do not mean the abrupt and ecstatic experience of Saul on the road to Damascus, blinded by a light "above the brightness of the sun," and startled by a voice speaking from heaven.     By vision, I mean the steady development at the University of Iowa of the conviction that the creative imagination in all of the arts is as important, as congenial, and as necessary, as the historical study of all the arts. How simple, and yet how reckless.     This gradual revelation was quite as astonishing as a sudden idea seen, for the first time, in a flash of light. It took imagination, some years ago, for an educational institution to put its trust in the imaginative arts.     Universities are not famous for taking chances, but the University of Iowa took one. There were doubts at the start. Could the writer keep his native frenzy in an academic air? Would not the place be overrun with aesthetes who come not to work but to dabble their delicate fingers in the Iowa River, which flows through the campus? (The answer to this was an easy "No!" for the river is frozen hard all winter and it is too muddy all summer, although with the finest mud in the world.) Would there not be fire, violence in the streets, and, most criminal of all, loafing in the classroom? If you gave young writers enough rope, would they hang decency and honor instead of, as might be hoped, hanging each other?     The French novelist Gustave Flaubert said, "The sight of a nude woman makes me think of her skeleton." Similarly, the university looked beyond the superficial image of these doubts and thought of the solid talent beneath, although perhaps not with Flaubert's analytical enthusiasm. By doing so, it recognized a powerful new direction in this country's culture, the writer everywhere on the campus, the older as teacher, the younger as student. For the first time in the sad and enchanting history of literature, for the first time in the glorious and dreadful history of the world, the writer was welcome in the academic place. If the mind could be honored there, why not the imagination?     One can understand why European universities would find this distasteful, with their ancient and rigid structures, although young writers are increasingly found at English institutions today. It was the flexibility of the American university, with its effort to roam over all areas of human activity, which made possible, if not easy, the addition of the creative person to the campus. If it is proper to teach children chicken-sexing, which calls for extreme acuteness of eye, and weaving, which can be a matter of the most gracious taste in design, then why is it not appropriate to teach originality in writing? To say that the creative has no part in education is to argue that a university should not be universal.     There is still a question to be asked--however pleasant this may sound, will it really work in practice? Here are a few facts from the University of Iowa in the last couple of years. In the anthology New Poets of England and America (edited by Hall, Pack, and Simpson), one-third of the whole American section consisted of poets who were then, or had recently been, at the poetry workshop, surpassing in number those at any university in this country or in England. In 1959 the Lamont Poetry Award given by the Academy of American Poets was won by Donald Justice for The Summer Anniversaries . In 1960 it was won by Robert Mezey for The Lovemakers . In 1960 the Pulitzer Prize for poetry was given to W. D. Snodgrass for Heart's Needle . The Yale Series of Younger Poets volume for 1959 was William Dickey's Of the Festivity . Winner of the first University of Nebraska Press First-Book publication prize for a new manuscript of American verses was Bruce Curler's The Year of the Green Wave . The Scribner's annual series, Poets of Today, has included five Iowa workshop poets in the first six volumes: Harry Duncan, Murray Noss, Joseph Langland, Theodore Holmes, Donald Finkel. The National Book Award for fiction, 1959, went to Philip Roth, now teaching at the fiction workshop, for his book of stories Goodbye, Columbus ; in 1960 the National Book Award for poetry went to Robert Lowell, a former teacher in the poetry workshop, for his Life Studies . The Esquire Reader , a collection of ten new writers of fiction, 1960, includes five who are either students or teachers at the fiction workshop.     These are works from the middle of the imagination by people who have been part of this creative effort in the middle of the country. They represent only the most recent of the scores of books of fiction and poetry published by members of the writing program, and hardly a fraction of the hundreds of poems and stories which have appeared in every magazine of consequence in this country, and in some from Europe. I would rather not resort to this sort of obvious cataloging of successes, but they are unassailable facts proving objectively that the university today is an honest and helpful place for the writer to be.     When President Lincoln was ill one time he said, "Now let the office-seekers come, for at last I have something I can give all of them." The writing program at the University of Iowa, more modest and less infectious than the president, does not offer something to all seekers. We believe that you can only teach where something in a mind is waiting to be taught. We do not pretend to grow blonde curls on an autumn pumpkin (alas, for what a triumph that would be in a farm state; when this happens, Iowa will be first). When Shelley wrote Keats, after reading some of his early and unrestrained poetry, that he should load every rift with ore, he was engaged in the sort of teaching we try to do; that is, he was identifying talent, and then saying what he could to make it better. Indeed, if Shelley turned up at the University of Iowa today, as English poets now do, his talent would be recognized and encouraged, and it is inconceivable that he would be thrown out as he was at Oxford. Maxwell Perkins editing the massive manuscripts of Thomas Wolfe into presentable shape is the sort of teaching we believe can be done.     After all, has the painter not always gone to an art school, or at least to an established master, for instruction? And the composer, the sculptor, the architect? Then why not the writer? Good poets, like good hybrid corn, are both born and made. Right criticism can speed up the maturing of a poet by years. More than that, tough and detailed criticism of a young writer can help him become his own shrewd critic so that, when he publishes, the critics will not have to be tough on him. In the process of original writing, every word and every attitude is subject to a constant scrutiny, or should be, and much of what we do is to heighten the sense of awareness which this requires. We knock, or persuade, or terrify, the false tenderness toward his own work out of the beginning writer. This is the beginning of wisdom.     As so often, Flaubert has said it wisely, "Beware of that intellectual overheating called inspiration," he wrote, and this is our warning too. Learn that it is not the intensity of emotion in the writer that matters, but the intensity of the shaped language (to paraphrase T. S. Eliot). Unless the writer keeps his aesthetic distance from the object he is creating, it may well overwhelm him in an excess of self-commitment. Flaubert said it: "You can depict wine, love, and women on the condition that you are not a drunkard, a lover, or a husband. If you are involved in life, you see it badly; your sight is affected either by suffering or enjoyment." This is not to argue for coldness in the writer, but only for that minimum level of calmness without which the work will not have the control necessary to achieve form, without which the moving cry becomes only screaming.     Flaubert knew the emotional risks of the writer, and only urged an objective stare at the subjective scene because he was so greatly in danger of drowning in his own subjectivity. "When I was describing the poisoning of Emma Bovary," he commented, "I had such a taste of arsenic in my mouth and was poisoned so effectively myself, that I had two attacks, for I vomited my entire dinner." What young writer could be harmed by discovering such an example? He is more likely to be harmed by looking at writing as the spontaneous outpouring of immediate feeling, like a patient on the psychiatrist's couch, the sodium amytal in his blood dissolving his inhibitions. The typewriter seems to act as the hypodermic syringe, releasing his babble of language. This writing then goes to the printer unrevised, lively perhaps, with the immediacy of its memories, but turgid in its unshaped prose. This delusion, that writing is not a formed art, but that it fails naturally onto the page like sudden rain, we try to persuade out of any heads which have it thundering and raging inside.     In a country with so ranging a landscape, with its concentration of culture so widely diffused, the problem of where a young writer is to feel at home becomes far more urgent than in England, where London is in easy reach. There must be an alternative between Hollywood and New York, between those places psychically as well as geographically. The University of Iowa tries to offer such a community, congenial to the young writer, with his uneasiness about writing as an honorable career, or with his excess of ego about calling himself a writer. To them, we offer hard criticism and decent sympathy. More than that, our way of mimeographing poetry and fiction for the workshops offers everyone a hearing. To have your work read by all the members of the workshop, and publicly criticized and praised by your instructors in the weekly meetings, represents a helpful and at the same time less hazardous form of publication.     The system offers proof that writing can be seriously regarded, and that it is a difficult art not only worth an absolute commitment of faith, time, and energy, but demanding it. The writer finds that the students around him are alert to his faults and quick to praise his virtues. In brief, he is, while practicing a completely private art, reassured by a sense of belonging to a group which gives him decent regard. For as long as he is part of this community, he has a useful competition with those around him, and at the same time is freed from the imperatives of the marketplace, as he may never be again. He can have a manner of publication without losing too much blood.     This matter of place is of tremendous importance to the writer in the U.S.A. We do not have that intense concentration of talent in one city, as certainly exists in Paris, London, and Rome, where writers either know each other or know a good deal about each other. Our plan gives the writer a place where he can be himself, confronting the hazards and hopes of his own talent, and at the same time he can measure his capacity against a variety of others, some better, some worse. He grows up rapidly. He becomes his own self-critic. He discovers that learning to write is not a mere acquiring of "techniques," as if he were learning to be a laboratory assistant or an appliance repairman, but in part a learning of his own nature. The criticism of a manuscript may be directed less to the prose than to the personality who wrote it. Sometime the young writer must understand that writing is a hard and solitary occupation, accomplished only by the old and bitter way of sitting down in fear and trembling to confront the most terrifying thing in the world--a blank sheet of paper. It is heartening to be able to do this in a place where you know that others are facing the same ordeal.     Place does not mean simply the boundaries of the United States. We have found that the creative imagination is wonderfully alert in breaking down the barriers of nationality and language. The workshops have heard the voices of poets and fiction writers speaking English (and writing it) in a charming and original way, which varied according to whether the speakers were from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines, Ireland, England, Canada, Sweden, India. A former officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy has heard his poems on the fall of Japan criticized by a former yeoman in the American Navy. A girl from India, looking as if she had stepped down from her usual job of holding up the corner of a temple roof just to attend this class for an hour, has heard with shock the story of an American boy's anxieties and bafflement in his relationship with women. "But why all of this fuss about sex?" she asked in a voice British in enunciation but gently, beautifully songlike.     The man who wrote the story, a former Marine sergeant with shoulders which looked as if they could have held up the temple alone, glared at her and demanded with a luminous suspicion, "OK, so what's wrong with sex?"     "Oh, nothing," she replied, dropping the words into the air as if they were carved in stone, "but why do so much worrying about it? We settled all of that thousands of years ago."     For a moment all discussion stopped while the calm-out-of-violence of ancient India hung in the troubled atmosphere of a hot August afternoon in a modest-sized Iowa town just about to become one hundred years old.     The strength of this international quality in the workshops is an example to us all of the power which the creative impetus has. Kim Yong Ik, probably the leading South Korean fiction writer in English, describes his widowed mother diving far down in the freezing waters of a Korean island to gather edible plants to feed her family. The place is strange to us, the customs are stranger, the language spoken by the family is strangest of all. Yet in a plain room in Iowa City, with the closest salt water over one thousand miles away, in the presence of young writers from the red earth hills of Georgia, the green counties of the English Midlands, the brown width of Texas, the granite-gouged valleys of New Hampshire, the deep Minnesota woods, the shallow Louisiana swamps, the California coast sun-brilliant below Los Angeles, the northern fog of Dublin, and the southern jungle of Negros Island in the Philippines, the story of that diving woman and her family was as close as the air they breathed. Reason: it was told with imagination.     For such a community, home is not the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in, as the Frost poem accurately says of its people. Home is the one place where the creative energy finds that, once it has come there, they are glad to take it in. The benefit to the whole United States of giving these articulate people from the far islands and continents of the earth a conviction that this country cherishes their talent (as their own countries often do not) is beyond measuring. For those seeking a true image of America, it is lucky that they come not to a seacoast city but to an interior town in the midst of the fat land that feeds the nation. Here they have a direct look at the daily life of the U.S.A. in its most typical manner.     Of course there are those in the academic life of the U.S.A. who either suspect us, deplore us, or hate us. In certain cases, we are proud to have them as enemies. In other cases, we regret the misunderstandings spoken about our beliefs or intentions. Let us be definite about this. There seems to us no reason for hostility between the study of literature and its creation. There are those who feel that writing is better done by the inspired ignoramus, uncorrupted by the weakening influences of the university. To us, it makes no difference what grows on the wall outside the writer's house, whether it is English ivy, poison ivy, hops, morning glories, or gourd vines. F. Scott Fitzgerald said once that there are no second chapters in American lives. Too often there are no second books, or at least there are second books no better (often worse) than the first. We think that the critical study of past literature will give the writer a maturity and an awareness of all the infinite variety of forms and attitudes, and that this will give bone and tendon to the soft flesh of his feelings.     A very important help here is that scholarship has never been so congenial to the writers as today. In much of their work, many scholars make literary insights which sometimes equal in perception the insights contained in the text they are studying. There has been a good deal of criticism today which surpasses in imaginative texture some of what is taken for literature....     It would be folly to deny that there are often reasons for hostility. Never in the world's cultural history has the study of literature been so minutely organized into departments of English, with numbered courses and named degrees. How can this immense apparatus really find enough fresh material to equal its massive arrangements? Will there not be several scholars converging through the tall grass of the library's meadow, all aiming for the one poor little rabbit-fact? New interpretations there will always be, but as of now the scholarly pattern is set up as if there really would be a place for the textual scholar as there had been in the past, when we needed a definitive text of Shakespeare and Chaucer. Here is where the writer becomes useful. Why should he not be a small, indeed a very small, part of this academic intelligence. But it has its value, wanting to teach the writers of the past from the writer's point of view, as imaginative expressions of his agony and delight, rather than as historical instances. If the creative writer is a menace to scholarship, then take a cold look at what that scholarship truly is. All too often it lacks the substance and power, not to mention the decent prose, of even minor writing.     ... We do not pretend to have produced the included writers in this book. Their talent was inevitably shaped by the genes rattling in ancestral closets. We did give them a community in which to try out the quality of their gift, as New Englanders used to speak of trying out the oil from whale blubber. Much of this writing was done in Iowa City and received our criticism. Some of it was written far away. In either case, the writer was for a while part of the community we have made here where the university has stood in the position of friend and, to a lighter degree than we would wish, of patron. It is conceivable that by the end of the twentieth century the American university will have proved a more understanding and helpful aid to literature than ever the old families of Europe. That sort of patronage had its doubtful aspects too. Franz Joseph Haydn, radiant in his talent, was counted in the lower ranks of the domestics by the great Esterhazy family of Hungary. He wore a blue uniform and ate down at the end of the table. He composed much of his sunlit music while living with that family, whose idea of fun was to have in the music room a big chair which, when sat in, played a cheerful flute solo.     We believe in the solitary genius, not in the agreeable average. Art may turn out to be the last refuge of the individual in our time. The one man raging in his terrible talent may be worth more than the sum of one hundred thousand bland mediocrities. When Flaubert wrote the word "hysterics," he says that he was so swept away, was bellowing so loudly and feeling so deeply what his little Bovary was going through, that he was afraid of having hysterics himself. This is seldom, I would guess, the way of scholarship. The bellowing of scholars I have been happy enough to observe was not out of sympathy with the characters they were studying. Such conduct indicates a different disposition in the sort of people coming to a writing program. To our delight and astonishment, they can adapt, they can be at home, they can find a heartening help.     Of course there are risks. The mild frost of a university air can kill the tender plant. Excess of self-consciousness can slow down a talent which has little momentum. An English novelist, V. S. Pritchett, laments that the American university may induce "an unnatural hostility to vulgarity" in the writer. I have seen twenty-five years of American writers at a university. Have no fear. They will not lose their vulgarity.     For some, the university will never be the right place, and this is right. They should remain on the road or on the beach or up in the attic or down in the cellar. It's a big country, mister. There's a place for everybody, in or out of the university, in or out of the house, in or out of jail....     The curious extraordinary devices which made this writing program possible in a state university are a part of the lavish variety of the American way of doing everything, including education and literature. It is proper, then, to express our thanks to a country which has given freedom of voice to its own young talent, and to that of many other nations. We have been allowed to run, stumble, and jump over the lovely landscape of the imagination. How can writers praise a country more than by saying: Look! In this place we have been free. Copyright © 1999 Robert Dana. All rights reserved.