Cedar Rapids’ Rhodes Scholar to Nobel Nominee: Iowa Poet Paul Engle

University of Iowa. Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Did you know Iowa can boast one of its own as a Nobel Prize-nominated poet?

April is National Poetry Month, and Iowa has had its fair share of noteworthy poets. But perhaps our most successful is Paul Engle.

Paul Engle was a lifelong Iowa poet who cared so much about writing he created programs to teach and to promote writers at the University of Iowa.

His work building up the writing program there earned him and his wife a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in 1976.

In 1957, Engle wrote a column for the New York Times Book Review which started, “Poetry is the only one of the arts which comes literally from inside the body, a thing secreted as well as made. It is not so much written as it is breathed onto the page.”

Cedar Rapids native to Rhodes Scholar

Born in Cedar Rapids in 1908, Engle went to Coe College, and then to the University of Iowa where he was one of the first people to get an advanced degree for creative writing.

His thesis, his first poetry collection called “Worn Earth,” won the Yale Series of Younger Poets.

He went on to get a doctorate at Columbia University and then to get another Master’s Degree at Merton College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar.

Engle’s second collection “American Song,” published in 1934 had a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review and was a bestseller for a brief time. Overall, he wrote more than a dozen poetry collections, a novel, a memoir and even a children’s book.

Built up Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Engle was a prolific poet who was dedicated to writing and to writing communities.

When he returned to Iowa from his studies, Engle joined the University of Iowa faculty, and became the second director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a graduate-level creative writing program, a position he held for 24 years.

While there, Engle brought writers such as Kurt Vonnegut and Phillip Roth, and poets such as Robert Lowell and John Berryman to the campus to teach upcoming writers, including Marvin Bell, Iowa’s first Poet Laureate.

During his tenure, Engle built the reputation of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop to the point it was recognized as a top writing program in the country.

Paul Engle and Robert Frost speak to a classroom. Credit: University of Iowa. Iowa Writers’ Workshop

Nobel nomination

In 1976, Engle and his wife, the Chinese poet Hualing Nieh Engle, were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for the International Writing Program they created at the University of Iowa in 1967.

The program supported international writers by inviting them to the university to write and collaborate with other writers.

Since its founding, the program has hosted writers from more than 150 countries.

Poetry legacy

Engle died in 1991, in O’Hare Airport on his way to Poland to accept an award.

Engle’s work explored travel, family, home and human connection. Most include a connection to nature, and he has several related to current events of his time, including the Great Depression and World War II.

His poem “Bird,” published December 1939 in Poetry Magazine illustrates that. It’s included in a collection of his poems in a section called “Our Human Strength” that ends with his poem by the same name.

The whole section explores pre-war anxiety and finding connections to other people and to nature.


The Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature created the Paul Engle Prize to award writers who, like Engle, make impacts on their community beyond their writing.

In 2000, Engle was named Iowa’s Poet of the Century, and then-Gov. Tom Vilsack declared Engle’s birthday, Oct. 12, to be Paul Engle Day.


Nikoel Hytrek


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