The Writer's Workshop: An Absolute Vision

When I came back from Oxford in 1936, I had no job. I was offered a job by Amherst College in Massachusetts, a terribly good, nice college in a beautiful location in northwestern Massachusetts. I somehow felt I didn't want to settle down in New England. Iowa was home.

Home is not always the most beautiful place. I always wanted to go home. One day I got a call from a man called Norman Forster, who was Director of the School of Letters. He said, "I'd like to talk to you." So I did the usual act, I said, "Well, of course, I'm rather busy." And all this kind of nonsense. He said, "Well, at your pleasure, of course." So I came down. He said, "I think I could use you in the School of Letters. In fact, I asked you here, I'll offer you a job. It doesn't pay quite as much as I wish it did." So after two American and two Oxford degrees and some prizes and some five books, I was offered $1250, teaching freshman English and workshops and Contemporary Literature. That's not exactly what you supported a family on even that long ago. A graduate dean offered me another $1250 on the shady excuse that it was a research grant. So there I began and I had, if I may say so, an absolute vision after the first Workshop meeting, I saw this is it. --


When I came to Iowa City as a graduate student in 1931, the English Department had a class in creative writing taught by a fine elderly gentleman (I use the term precisely) from Nebraska and Harvard named Edwin Ford Piper, author of the book of poems, "Barbed Wire and Wayfarers."

I was indeed a wayfarer, and academic life was indeed barbed wire, but it had been modified by the department under the guidance of its then chairman, Baldwin Maxwell (always himself a gentleman and always sympathetic), and the director of the School of Letters, Norman Foerstner, to allow original work in poetry and fiction to be submitted as a thesis for advanced degrees.
It was a reckless thing for them to do. Painting, sculpture, musical composition had always been considered proper subjects for students, but "creative" writing had been suspect. Literature was studied, not written.

There were seven graduate students in that creative writing class, including a drunken poet who achieved a brilliant line before disappearing forever. Describing a scene near the packing house in Cedar Rapids, he wrote: "The wind bends the Bohunks\Coming around the corner." I knew that wind from growing up in Cedar Rapids, and I knew those Czechs (regrettably called Bohunks). They bent.

That autumn a collection of my poems, mostly written at Coe College, from which I graduated, won the annual contest for the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize. It may have been the first book of poems ever accepted as the thesis for a Master of Arts degree.

I will probably not be forgiven for stating that, on returning to the University of Iowa to teach creative writing after a year at Columbia University and three years at Oxford, more of my students have won the same prize than have students from Yale, which I believe is located near the north shore of Long Island Sound.

What that means is that the banks of the Iowa River were also congenial places for young writers.

One of the glories of the University of Iowa (there are many) has been its kindness (tolerance?) to creative students in all of the arts.

The Iowa River does not have the salty tang of Long Island Sound, alas, but it does have the richness of drowned groundhog, an occasional cow, a few rotten carp, ample pesticides and insecticides.

Were ever the Thebes, the Seine, the Rhine, Thames, the Yangtze richer? There was a tiny group of hopeful writers in 1931 along the Iowa City stretch of the Iowa River, admiring its determination to keep flowing just as they were determined to keep writing. Few wrote later. But the concept was crucial. If some one asked us, "What do you do?"--it was no disgrace to reply, "What a lot of crap." There was some, Even in the English Department. They didn't write.

Since those early and fumbling days, to be a writer in Iowa City has been honorable. The books of those whom we brought here are now in the hundreds. I use we carefully, because those who taught in the Writers' Workshop when I was director worked closely together.

Every session was taught by several writers, to get a variety of critical opinions for the students. We discussed every manuscript jointly, so that no matter how much we differed about it, the young writer had an intensive reading which was, in a sense, like publication. We saw them individually in long conferences. There was turbulence; there was excitement. The students were fine critics of each other, more ruthless than the staff. All of that was possible because administrators gave us enough rope (there were a few hangings).

Coming back to the University of Iowa in 1937, I found a far greater warmth toward the writer than when I had been a student. After the aloofness of European Universities to the writer (it is less so now in England; in 1933-36 my tutor at Oxford, the famous English poet, Edmund Blunden, told me that he was suspect for publishing so many books), this made a very congenial environment in which to live and write.

Wilber Schramm had begun the Writer's Workshop and I joined him in helping him teach it. The important thing is that in this university and in this pleasant city, I felt that to be a writer, a poet, was like being an insurance salesman, a clerk in drug store, which I had been for years, a filling station operator, a doctor, a dentist, a feed salesman; that is to say, a person contributing to the survival of the people.

I wrote my books knowing that neither the university, nor my neighbors, nor the business men with whom I did my (pathetically small) business, would regard me as abnormal.

I don't recall anyone, when I moved to one of the various streets where I have lived here, saying, "Well, there goes the neighborhood." Of course they might have thought it.

I have been in many countries. London, Paris, Berlin, Calcutta, Oxford, Beijing etc.

But I prefer the corner of Clinton and Washington streets in Iowa City.


Because along the tree-lined street and past the old red brick buildings walked some of the best writers and artists in the USA.

They are still walking there. Taking mail for the Writer's Workshop, and my own poems, to the late Rock Island train each night. As I did for many years, I could see lights in little apartments above the stores and know that some damn good writing was filling up a lot of paper.

Now many of those places are just holes in the air, but I am haunted by the talent which I know once lived in that space, often miserably, often with one dime ahead.

One of the rewards of a largely misspent life (where are the unwritten books?) is knowing that the writer was regarded as a valuable person by a university which was the first to make a solid commitment to such doubtful people.

It still does.

I came to Iowa City exactly 50 years ago. Has anyone still active at the university been here that long? It comforts and frightens me. I came as a poet, I stay as a poet, although at a practical level I deal daily with a subject quite as mysterious (and attractive!) as poetry--money, to give to writers. The University of Iowa gambled on me as a poet-student, it gambled on me as a poet-teacher.

Iowa City, 1981