August 7, 2022

Helen Adam (b. Scotland / USA) 1909-1993

Helen Adam (b. Scotland/USA)



Born in Scotland in 1909, Helen Adam is best known for her poetry exploring the ballad tradition. She wrote in traditional forms, but mixed the archaic language of that tradition with modern psychological consciousness. Her work combined the rhyme and meter of the ballad with collage and film techniques.

     Her first book, The Elfin Peddler, was published at the age of 12, when she was hailed as a child prodigy. Tales Told by Pixie Pool and Shadow of the Moon followed.

     In 1939 Adam, her mother, and sister traveled to the USA to attend a cousin's wedding. Soon after, World War II was declared, and fearing the war and having no firm prospects back in Scotland, the three remained in the US, settling in New York for ten years. Helen worked upstate in New York as a farm worker on fruit trees, before moving with her sister and mother to the West, staying for a short while in Reno and ultimately moving to San Francisco, where Adam began again to write, producing twelve books of poetry, a book of fiction, a film, and a musical.

    Arriving in San Francisco in the 1950s, Adam took Robert Duncan's poetry workshop at San Francisco State University, where she influenced her teacher by what he described as opening "the door to the full heritage of the forbidden Romantics. Her ballads were the missing link to the tradition." Allen Ginsberg, Jack Spicer, James Broughton, Madeline Gleason, and the artist Jess were all, in some respects, influenced by Adams work, and before long she become highly involved with what was later described as the San Francisco Renaissance.

     In the 1964 she returned to New York City, performing her ballads with Patti Smith, Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. Her opera San Francisco's Burning, on which she collaborated with her sister Pat and the composer Al Carmines, was published as a book in 1963, and reprinted with new material in 1985. Adam also starred in two films by the German director Rosa von Praunheim.

     With the death of Pat in 1986, Adam fell into a depression and refused to receive visitors and cash her assistance checks. She died as a ward of the state in 1993, her papers and publications presumed to be lost in the trash. Only a box of her rock collection was found, ten years later, in a dumpster.




Charms and Dreams from the Elfin Pedlar's Pack (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1924); The Elfin Pedlar, and Tales Told by Pixie Pool [with drawings by the author] (London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1924); Shadow of the Moon (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1929); Fire and Sleet and Candlelight: New Poems of the Macabre, ed. by August Derleth (Sauk City, Wisconsin: Arkham House Publishers, 1961); San Francisco's Burning [with Pat Adams and illustrations by Jess Collins] (Berkeley: Oannes Press, 1963); Ballads [illustrated by Jess] (New York: Acadia Press, 1964); City 3, ed by Marilyn Hacker and Samuel Delaney (1968); Selected Poems and Ballads (New York: Helikon Press, 1974); Turn Again to Me and Other Poems (New York: Kulchur Foundation, 1977); Ghosts and Grinning Shadows: Two Witch Stories [with collages by the author] (Brooklyn: Hanging Loose Press, 1979); Gone Sailing [with drawings by Ann Mikolowski] (West Branch, Iowa: Toothpaste Press, 1980); Songs with Music [music transcribed by Carl Gundberg] (San Francisco: Aleph Press, 1982); Stone Cold Gothic [with paintings by Austie] (New York: Kulchur Foundation, 1984); The Bells of Dis: Poems by Helen Adam [drawings by Ann Mikolowski] (West Branch, Iowa: Coffee House Press, 1985); San Francisco's Burning [with additional lyrics by Pat Adam, illustrations by Jess, and a musical score by Al Carmines] (Brooklyn: Hanging Loose Press, 1985); A Helen Adam Reader, ed by Kristin Prevallet] (Orono, Maine: National Poetry Foundation, 2008)


To read Helen Adam's "Miss Laura," click below:



For the complete performance of San Francisco's Burning and Susan Howe's performance

of some Helen Adam poems, click below:

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