Engels, John (David)

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ENGELS, John (David)

Nationality: American. Born: South Bend, Indiana, 19 January 1931. Education: University of Notre Dame, Indiana, A.B. 1952; University College, Dublin, 1955; University of Iowa, Iowa City, M.F.A. 1957. Military Service: U.S. Navy, 1952–55: Lieutenant. Family: Married Gail Jochimsen in 1957; two daughters and four sons (one deceased). Career: Instructor in English, Norbert College, West De Pere, Wisconsin, 1957–62. Assistant professor, 1962–70, and since 1970 professor of English, St. Michael's College, Winooski Park, Vermont. Visiting lecturer, University of Vermont, Burlington, 1974, 1975, 1976; Slaughter Lecturer, Sweet Briar College, Virginia, 1976; writer-in-residence, Randolph Macon Woman's College, Virginia, 1992. Secretary, 1971–72, and trustee, 1971–75, Vermont Council on the Arts. Awards: Bread Loaf Writers Conference scholarship, 1960, and Robert Frost fellowship, 1976; Guggenheim fellowship, 1979. Address: Department of English, St. Michael's College, Winooski Park, Vermont 05404, U.S.A.



The Homer Mitchell Place. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1968.

Signals from the Safety Coffin. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975.

Vivaldi in Early Fall. Burlington, Vermont, Bittersweet Press, 1977.

Blood Mountain. Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1977.

Vivaldi in Early Fall (collection). Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1981.

The Seasons in Vermont. Syracuse, Tamarack, 1982.

Weather-Fear: New and Selected Poems 1958–1982. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1983.

Cardinals in the Ice Age. St. Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1987.

Walking to Cootehill: New and Selected Poems, 1958–1992. Hanover, New Hampshire, University Press of New England, 1993.

Big Water. New York, Lyons & Burford, 1995.

Sinking Creek: Poems. New York, Lyons Press, 1998.


Writing Techniques, with Norbert Engels. New York, McKay, 1962.

Experience and Imagination, with Norbert Engels. New York, McKay, 1965.

Editor, The Merrill Guide to William Carlos Williams. Columbus. Ohio. Merrill, 1969.

Editor, The Merrill Checklist of William Carlos Williams. Columbus, Ohio, Merrill, 1969.

Editor, The Merrill Studies in Paterson. Columbus, Ohio, Merrill, 1971.

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Through eight full volumes—the fifth and seventh selections spanning, respectively, twenty-five and thirty-five years of work—John Engels's poems reveal themselves to be parts of one long, complex, and intense meditation on the struggle of mind with matter, earth with air, death with love. The poems, varied in subject and manner, never arrive at easy answers but rather pause at the soul's leap into air or recoil at the earth's deadly bull's-eye or end in a terrible balance between brute fact and injured thought.

The poems in the first five books all center in the consciousness of a man living for many years in a single house in Vermont, aware always of the stagnant water seeping into his cellar and up into his living air, wary and worried by winter's deadly encroachments, wounded beyond solace by the death of his baby son, and yet still able to count over the names of his living family, wife and children, still able to make the act of love, which consists of his continuing attempts to name the world, to give it words by which to live. The scope of his poetry is, then, small—this house, these people, these doubts and concerns. But its range and depth are enormous as Engels worries these simple subjects into a poetry as disciplined and intense and deeply meaningful as that of any modern poet.

Engels is never content with the results of his words' wrestle with matter. From his first book, The Homer Mitchell Place, to Big Water he has returned to the same subjects, themes, and images, reshaping them, restating them, reassessing them, always pressing them deeper toward a continually elusive meaning. In Weather-Fear he reworked and relined poems, compressing them on the page, holding back the flow of their rich rhythms, aware always that they still do not say enough of what they must say if they are to push away from the earth's grave downpulling into the soul's freed flight. This dissatisfaction, which is at the heart of his poetry's dynamic tension, emerges explicitly in the long and central poem "Interlachen," with which he ends Weather-Fear:

   I tend to speak, though lacking
   clarity, not knowing
   the names, not having in need
   the language, given to interminable
   revision of the text. And this is where
   the true anger locates itself,
   that I have no ability or hope
   that I may speak to the ordinary with much
   in the way of truth or generosity.
   And it must seem I make these rituals
   as if they were sole judge of the truth,
   not merely sanctimonies of procedure, noble
   appearances of moral care
   by reason of which the names refuse themselves,
   and it all ends
   in such unsatisfactory obliquities as this.

Despite and perhaps because of his sense of inadequacy in the face of the overwhelming task, Engels's speaking "to the ordinary" has, as he described Mozart's music, "seized in the real and made to flash forth / the mute transparencies / of matter." In Cardinals in the Ice Age he extends his personal voice and local concerns into other voices and into eastern Europe, to Subotica and Slovenj Gradec, Bohinj and Skopje, a ranging out that he continues in Walking to Cootehill. But in alien places with difficult names he finds himself struggling with the same problems, shaping them into words and into vital form. Still only "a whisker from / annihilation," he finds himself in a living museum of horrors and wonders, having no choice but to trust the loud stranger at the taxi's wheel because in this strange world he is "unable / with clarity to see enough ahead / to mark our proper turnings / and prepare for them."

Engels is a major voice in American poetry, one not given proper credit at a time when simple anecdote or surreal political statement is accorded lavish critical attention. Yet his sure growth from the controlled metrical force of his early poems through the mythic breakthrough of the poems in Blood Mountain to the sustained musical visions of the later poems in Vivaldi in Early Fall, the grand reassessments of Weather-Fear, the new locales and voices in Cardinals in the Ice Age, and the careful unifying of his work (poems old and new taking proper places in the design) in Walking to Cootehill and Big Water (a gathering of old and new poems about fishing) is that of a serious craftsman and a genuinely visionary artist. Like the other artists of whom he has written—Mozart and Vivaldi, Mahler and van Gogh—he has produced a body of work in which change and sustained vision are in total harmony, in which we dare name our darkness, know the shock of our fall that made the whole earth shake, and feel the bruise that congeals at the very root of our being.

What Engels finally gives us is our most basic fear made tangible, grounded in a language of weight and substantial gravity, and from that ground he forces us aloft, lifts our gaze from the sealed grave and gaping cellar hole to a vision earned in all that painful darkness, a moment, as he puts it in "The Disconnections,"

   in the dazzling, translucid sea-light, union of particles
   beyond all series, never so light as then, the earth
   closed on itself and centered, gravid
   with bodies, trembling to give birth.

—R.H.W. Dillard