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Helen Forman, poet and wit, dies

Helen Forman, poet and wit, dies

She wrote bawdy limericks for Paul Newman to give to his wife, played croquet with Robert Penn Warren and Robert Lowell and was published in the Best American Poetry series at the age of 85.

Helen Forman P’73, accomplished poet and wordsmith, whom the Alumni Bulletin dubbed a “one-time Kenyon Bookstore clerk and all-time raconteur,” died on Saturday at her home in Gambier. She was 93.

Born Helen Elizabeth Ransom on Jan. 17, 1922 to Robb Reavill Ransom and John Crowe Ransom, Forman moved from Nashville to Gambier when her father came to Kenyon in 1939 to teach and found The Kenyon Review. She would publish poems in that journal, growing up in a family and social sphere of literary titans.

“It was a place where you sat around dinner tables for six hours and told different kinds of family stories or told stories about friends,” Forman’s daughter Liz recalled. “They created their world, and a large part of their way of being with each other was to tell stories, was to create narratives.”

After graduating from Vanderbilt University, Forman married Oliver Duane Forman in 1945, and the couple moved to Baton Rouge, La. They divorced in 1967.

In 1969, Forman moved back to Gambier, where Liz was beginning her first year at Kenyon’s Coordinate College for Women. Forman became a clerk at the Kenyon Bookstore, where she would work for the next 20 years.

Forman drew cartoons and presided over many a night of cards and word games with Kenyon’s elite.

Forman’s crossword puzzles graced the pages of the Alumni Bulletin and Fortnightly, complete with Kenyon-themed clues: “Katz, Kluge, or McMullen might find him a character to praise, but President Carter found him a boasting menace.” (Answer: “Rabbit,” of the John Updike novels.)

“I knew it from the first time we met about 30 years ago that this was a true character,” said P.F. Kluge ’64, writer-in-residence and Collegian advisor. “One of a kind in Gambier, connected to the place not as an employee particularly, though she worked in the bookstore, but as the daughter of John Crowe Ransom, a reader, a commentator, a smoker and a wit.”

In 2007, the Michigan Quarterly Review published several of Forman’s poems, believing they were penned by John Crowe Ransom himself. Forman’s grandson Charles Stephen Dew pointed out the error, but that didn’t stop The Best American Poetry 2007 from including one of those poems in its anthology under Forman’s name.

Professor of English Adele Davidson ’73 remembered Forman as gracious and diplomatic, someone who embodied a combination of Southern hospitality and fierce individuality.

“The judgments of charity are not always the judgment of virtue,” Davidson said. “Helen was somebody that did both of those.”

Davidson recalled quoting Yeats and Shakespeare with Forman at parties. One of Forman’s favorite lines came from Antony and Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.”

Forman is survived by her daughters Liz Forman ’73 and Robb Forman Dew H’07; grandsons Charles Stephen Dew and John Dew; and a brother, John James Ransom.


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