Did Paul Engle write poetry for Hallmark? You betcha he did! The longtime director of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop—the guy who shepherded the M.F.A. Program in creative writing to national prominence, who hired Vonnegut, Lowell and Berryman to teach writing in Iowa City, who mentored Flannery O'Connor, Robert Bly, Philip Levine, Donald Justice and others who would go on to spread the good workshop news far and wide—more than once put pen to paper in service of that bastion of literary publishing: Hallmark.
Find out more in "Remembering Paul Engle," on news stands in the current (October/November 2008) issue of The Writer's Chronicle. Excerpt follows:
On December 4-5, 1959, the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and Esquire magazine co-sponsored a symposium that brought Ralph Ellison, Mark Harris, Dwight Macdonald, and Norman Mailer to the Iowa City campus, which was then called the State University of Iowa. This was the second such event that Arnold Gingrich—publisher and founding editor of Esquire—had organized. The previous year, he'd arranged for Saul Bellow, Leslie Fiedler, Wright Morris, and Dorothy Parker to meet at Columbia University in New York in order to discuss "The Position of the Writer in America Today." A year later, under the somewhat narrowed rubric of "The Writer in a Mass Culture," Gingrich and longtime Writers' Workshop Director Paul Engle welcomed audiences to the prairie, opening an event that had been pitched to the press in functional, decidedly prosaic language. "Four distinct statements of the problem," the release read, "will be made by four widely published writers who have faced the constant issues of art and the marketplace."
In New York, Wright Morris had spoken of the “mindless society” into which he saw United States writers introducing their work, and Mark Harris’s leadoff speech in 1959 picked up where Morris let off, setting the stage early for a wholesale, broad-stroked denunciation of mass culture from the perspective of highbrow art and literature. “Art and mass distribution are simply incompatible,” Harris began. “The writer has no business reaching for a mass audience and the serious reader has no business distracting the writer by discussing with him possible methods of bridging the gulf between the writer and the mass—it cannot be bridged.” Harris went on to make several proposals which he felt would improve the situation of the literary arts in the United States, including a drastic reduction in the number of books published each year, the subsidizing of presses by wealthy foundations, and “the creation of a bureau of pure books and standards, whose role would not be censorship nor repression, but education and clarification.” Nor was Harris above naming names. “Let us declare once and forever ..., ” he implored, “Edgar Guest was never a poet.”
While the symposium would go on to nuance the terms of Harris’s opening remarks, neither Macdonald nor Mailer would challenge his general depiction of mass culture. Macdonald, who published his famous essay “Masscult and Midcult” in the Partisan Review a year later, lamented the lack of a “cultivated class” in the United States which he saw in England and answered that “the serious writer has to ... write for his peers.” Calling mass culture “a dreadful thing,” Mailer went on (as only Mailer himself could have, perhaps) to ratchet up the rhetoric by saying, “I consider it a war, I consider the mass media really as if I were living with a cancerous wife and each day I have to see her all the time and she gives me a bit of her cancer. That is about the way I feel about the mass media.” Only Ellison argued for a more sophisticated position. “A democracy,” he cautioned, “is not just a mass, it is a collectivity of individuals. And when it comes to taste, when it comes to art, each and every one of these people must have the right, the opportunity, to develop his taste and must face the same type of uncertainty which all of us face on this platform.”
In the symposium’s transcript, however, Paul Engle is silent on these matters. On one level, this silence is completely understandable; as moderator, his job was to conduct the speeches, referee the Q&A period that followed, and specifically not inject his own feelings on the subject. On another level, however, his silence is more provocative. For Engle—the man who had been directing the prestigious Writers’ Workshop for seventeen years, who had brought John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Kurt Vonnegut to Iowa City to teach, who would mentor writers like Robert Bly, Philip Levine, Donald Justice, and Flannery O’Connor, and who would go on to lead the program for almost another decade—was not only at that precise moment placing his poetry in publications such as Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Better Homes & Gardens, and Reader’s Digest magazines. But he was writing poems for Hallmark greeting cards as well.