Poet Helen Harrington
From Iowa farm country, a writer who celebrates the song of the earth and self
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.
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.
I met with Helen for several hours at a time, over three days. For the substance of this interview, we talked in the front bedroom of the farmhouse. It was hot and sticky outside, but we sipped lemonade and ate chocolate cake in front of a small fan. The table where Helen does her typing faces the yard, the road, and across the road the slight rise where cattle grazed placidly. She's tried to get Red to move the Chevy out of the drive so she can see her rose bushes. How would you categorize your poetry? Well, I write two kinds, because there is a poetic love of the land, and a practical love of the land. If I'm mowing the yard and a poem starts coming to me, it might be very factual. I might be thinking about a butterfly - certainly not about life or death. And then if a certain thought comes along, the image might suddenly become symbolic of human life - and that is the poetry. I tend to think very much in the abstract, to mean more than I say in certain poems, but in others I'm quite factual. But I don't like people reading more into my poems, like they did with [Robert] Frost; lots of times they don't know what they're talking about. So you don't like people to second guess you? As you get older, you have to explain yourself to others, or else they'll do it for you, and they might get it wrong. -My next question was drowned out by the roar of a semi-trailer passing on the road. Helen said they use this route to avoid the weigh station on the main highway.- Do you think it's wrong to try to explain poetry? No. That's why poetry's lost out, because poems began to be so obscure that no one could understand them and they had to be explained, and they lost that human touch of how people live, how they act, and how they really are. There's a great nobility, a great deal of mystery in man, as well as great many bad things. Do you have some kind of poetic credo? Actually I have something I want to read you. It's something I wrote. [She reads.] We have to learn to live with mystery and uncertainty, enjoying or understanding what we can of the charm [of life], while adapting to the necessity of being practical. Being practical involves considering whether a certain cause in which we believe is likely to win, succeed, or cost too much if it should fail. Being realistic may entail pessimism. Your poems don't strike me as pessimistic. I think like a pessimist, but I live like an optimist. I've always been very happy, most of the time, but I hurt more as I get older, because there's always so much more I'd like to do. And poetry has been a therapy for me. I've been largely rather lonely, I was an only child. When my parents died, there was a great deal that was not left to me. I respect my husband very much, but we're very different. He's a very practical man, and he doesn't always understand poetry, but once in a while when I read him some, he likes it....
It is nice to have a family that you're content to live with without other people. I've had some really fine friends. But I had to sacrifice something. The family came first, and then the farm, and the animals. The poetry saved me for joy that was almost unalloyed. It's a great thing, an unalloyed joy. That's why I don't go to town, simply because there's not time. There's such a sense of ``connectedness'' to all life in your writing. How do you capture that? When I'm writing, all things kind of surge in. You feel it in the wind. You feel it on a poignant night in summer when you're lying on your bed and the breeze comes over your face and the moon is rising. It's a mystical feeling, being a part of all things. And it's touching; it's [a feeling] that people have lost the ability to understand or even seek. I don't like that. People should take time to feel, they need to feel that sort of peace that comes from understanding life and being kind of sorry about some of it, but still appreciating how wonderful it is to live.
The mystical in the world is actually fact made in the heart. Because you know that you've experienced it. Do you think trying to describe those mystical experiences was what started you writing? I don't know what started me writing; I liked the sound of words. My grandmother used to say to me, ``You think too much.'' Do you remember when you first started thinking independently of your family? I think quite early, probably before I was in high school. It was intensified by my interest in what the teachers taught us about ancient history through the study of other religions, and the hints that there are some differences of [theological] opinion - to put it lightly.
Science isn't romantic enough for me. I think science is valuable and can help us. I don't believe in a supernatural God. I believe what we are looking for is a kind of goodness in the world that we'd like to have, but are too ornery and too mischievous to accept, and too ignorant sometimes to choose the side that is wise, because we have to choose between two ignorances. We don't know what is going to happen. The one basic interest is not to inflict too much pain and to care for one another. What does farming mean to you? I'm a propagandist for farms, but not necessarily for farmers. They're individual capitalists, they tame the land to endure. They can be quite ruthless, but they're caught in a trap by the fact that the market is set. When the government came in and helped them, it was a great help, but it didn't always teach them anything. Just like the doggone wars. And the animals? Well, I told you about rescuing that blue jay from the water tank. And you saw the cows. Cows have great calm. They trust us too much, and every one I feel like I betray everytime I sell them. I could never write poetry about the animals [we sold]. It hurts too much. What satisfies you the most when you're writing, when you feel the most fulfilled? Maybe it's surprise. The surprise of suddenly finding the right feeling that you want to describe in unusual words, that just come to you without reaching for the thesaurus. I like that moment of recognition.