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Poet Helen Harrington

From Iowa farm country, a writer who celebrates the song of the earth and self

By April AustinEditor, The Home Forum / July 12, 1989

IOWA farmland has a slow serenity about it. Giant cylindrical hay bales squat in the fields at precise distances from one another. Telephone wires stretch leisurely between dull brown poles. Startled rabbits dart up from the edge of the two-lane highway, and disappear into high grass. The grass itself has the quality of crisp strips of paper, crinkling in the hot June sun. The land provides things like corn, soybeans, hay and grass for livestock, but it also yields poetry and symmetry, prose and possibility. It is the touchstone for 80-year old Helen Harrington, who for 38 years has published over 500 insightful and searching poems on the Home Forum.

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The Home Forum thought readers who have enjoyed Helen's work might jump at the chance to meet the poet in her habitat, so I visited Helen on her farm along the Iowa-Missouri border.

This woman, whose white hair rises like a cloud behind her head, was dressed in a robin's-egg blue pantsuit that matched her eyes. She introduced me around to the two dogs, three cats, and one nest-building wren, then settled in quickly to discussing the Chinese government crackdown and the anti-intellectual bias in this country. Her formal education stopped after high school but Helen's learning encompasses philosophic texts, classic literature, newspapers, and keen observation, and she is adept at discussing, analyzing, and probing issues to their core.

Helen feeds off of the McNeil-Lehrer News Hour; she catches Washington Week in Review; she reads the Des Moines Register. And she despairs of the leadership in Washington. In the '60s, which Helen considers her most exciting and happy period, she put out her own poetry magazine, and garnered honors in state and national poetry contests. She proudly showed me the yellowed, psychedelic flower-covered scrapbook where she keeps clippings of newspaper articles, including one titled ``Lamoni Woman Prolific Poet.''

The '60s political climate was also more to Helen's taste, and she wrote a newspaper column called ``Country Air'' in which she commented on matters civic, rural, social, and political. She printed texts of letters from her daughter Dixie in the foreign service in Brussels.

This diminutive farm wife was a vocal critic of the Vietnam war, and she spoke out against ROTC training on college campuses. Helen's fascination with the turning of world events also made it natural for her to call up a black Kenyan college student whom she had never met to congratulate him on his country's independence from Britain. When John F. Kennedy's life was shattered by an assassin's bullet, Helen published a booklet of poems mourning his death. (I had uncovered the disquieted soul of a political idealist.)

But at the same time, Helen remained firmly rooted in the farm, and the realities of farm life. She took joy in the changing seasons, worried over livestock, kept up with a minimum of housework so she could write while her husband Red worked outside and Dixie was away. She and Red worked hard in a way city people could never understand - for them, it was a constant round of chores and maintenance.

Red's careful managing, it seems, kept the family from borrowing when borrowing was the fad, so today the Harringtons do not live under the immediate threat of losing their farm. But the tension is there: The two of them, both in their 80s, still work the land (``Farming's like mining, it gets in your blood. You never really retire when you're a farmer,'' Helen says of her husband) and are concerned about what will happen when they are no longer around.