Helen Adam

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Helen Adam

Helen Adam (December 2, 1909 in Glasgow, Scotland – September 19, 1993 in New York City) was a Scottish poet, collagist and photographer who was an active participant in The San Francisco Renaissance, a literary movement contemporaneous to the Beat Generation that occurred in San Francisco during the 1950s and 1960s. Though often associated with the Beat poets, she would more accurately be considered one of the predecessors of the Beat Generation.


From Kristin Prevallet: "In a dark forest, a woman in a white strapless evening gown is stiffly toppling into the arms of a gigantic tarantula. One of her arms is nestled comfortably between the spider's strong, hairy forearms, and she appears comfortable with the monstrosity that is cuddling her. In another scene two bats are attached to the sleeve of an elegant lady's gown, dangling as if a part of her ensemble. The society debutantes around her appear to be oblivious to the grotesque attachment. The lady does have a slightly uncomfortable expression on her face, but it is not the bats that are making her nervous. Rather, she is worried that her private passions will be discovered by the outside world. She reassures herself, "perhaps no one will notice them." As in all of the collages of Helen Adam, the true desires of women are fulfilled not by mortal men, but by highly charged encounters with unhuman beings.

Helen Adam, whom the poet Robert Duncan once referred to as "the extraordinary nurse of enchantment," was an active participant in The San Francisco Renaissance, a literary movement contemporaneous to the Beat Generation that occurred in San Francisco during the 1950s and 60s. Born in Scotland in 1909, Adam primarily wrote supernatural ballads which tell of fatal romances, darkly sadistic sexual affairs, jealous lovers, and vengeful demons. Her collages arise from these ballads, and animate what she called her "lethal women." She assembled the majority of her collages in the late 1950s, having been influenced by the procedures of the well-known collage artist and painter Jess who was also living in San Francisco during this time. Jess's collages are a myriad of images, fitted like pieces of a puzzle which come together to form one visionary grande-collage. Universes of tiny details and connections are assembled together, a process that reflects the palimpsistic layering of contemporary poetry as much as it does the found-object and assemblage movements that are central to modern art. When compared to Jess's collages, Adam's are strikingly simple. They combine two images—a beautiful man or woman, and a creature. And this combination results in an ironic playfulness that teases the viewer to wonder: are these collages a form of self-portrait, a projection of this woman's deep fears mingled with her repressed desire?"


Adam was a precocious poet; her first book, The Elfin Pedlar, was published in 1923, when the poet was fourteen years old. That book was in the Victorian genre of light verse about fairies and other pastoral subjects. Her early books were well known and widely reviewed; the composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford set selections from The Elfin Pedlar to orchestral music, and performed them widely.[1]

Adam attended Edinburgh University for two years. After leaving Edinburgh University she worked as a journalist in London. In 1939 she moved to the United States and eventually moved to San Francisco. In San Francisco she worked with such influential poets as Allen Ginsberg and Robert Duncan.[2]

One of the oldest of the poets in the San Francisco Renaissance, she worked closely with Duncan, Jess, Madeline Gleason, and Jack Spicer, among others. She also encouraged many of the Beat poets as they began to explore performance and writing as an art form. While her continued use of the ballad form “mystified” many of the poets more associated with the movement, the "magic and knowledge she brought to San Francisco startled the young wild sages of its Renaissance with a special kind of madness." [3]

Helen Adam and her sister collaborated on a ballad opera entitled San Francisco's Burning which was published in 1963 and reissued in 1985 with score by Al Carmines and drawings by Jess. A collection of her poems was collected in a work titled Selected Poems and Ballads. She was one of only four women whose work was included in Donald Allen's landmark anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (1960). Adam also acted in two films: Death and Our Corpses Speak, both of which were filmed in Germany. Her life was a subject of a documentary film directed by experimental film maker Rosa von Praunheim.

Her papers are held at University at Buffalo, The State University of New York,[4] and Kent State University.[5]



A good example of Helen Adam's verse with its striking use of language is "Margaretta's Rime":

Margaretta's Rime
In Amsterdam, that old city,
Church bells tremble and cry;
All day long their airy chiming
Clavers across the sky.
I am young in the old city,
My heart dead in my breast.
I hear the bells in the sky crying,
"Every being is blest."
In Amsterdam, that old city,
Alone at a window I stand,
A spangled garter my only clothing,
A candle flame in my hand.
The people who pass that lighted window,
Looking me up and down,
Know I am one more tourist trifle
For sale in this famous town.
Noon til dusk at the window waiting,
Nights of fury and shame.
I am young in an old city
Playing an older game.
I hear the bells in the sky crying
To the dead heart in my breast,
The gentle bells in the sky crying
"Every being is blest."

Selected publications[edit]

  • The Elfin Pedlar and Tales Told by the Pixie Pool, 1923
  • Charms and Dreams from the Elfin Pedlar's Pack, 1924
  • Shadow of the Moon, 1929
  • The Queen O' Crow Castle, 1958
  • Ballads, 1964
  • Counting Out Rhyme, 1972
  • Selected Poems and Ballads, 1974
  • Ghosts and Grinning Shadows (a collection of short stories), 1977
  • Turn Again to Me and Other Poems, 1977
  • Gone Sailing, 1980
  • Songs with Music, 1982
  • The Bells of Dis, 1984
  • (With Auste Adam) Stone Cold Gothic, 1984.
  • "San Francisco's Burning", 1985
  • A Helen Adam Reader. Edited with notes and an introduction by Kristin Prevallet, 2008.


  1. ^ Ange Mlinko, "A Nurse of Enchantment", book review, in The Nation, byline March 27, 2008, accessed April 1, 2009
  2. ^ "Helen Adam Papers website". Speccoll.library.kent.edu. Retrieved 2011-06-18. 
  3. ^ "The Reluctant Pixie Poole". Epc.buffalo.edu. Retrieved 2011-06-18. 
  4. ^ "Collections - The Poetry Collection - Special Collections - University at Buffalo Libraries". Library.buffalo.edu. Retrieved 2011-06-18. 
  5. ^ "''Overview of the Helen Adam Papers'', Kent State Library". Speccoll.library.kent.edu. Retrieved 2011-06-18. 

External links[edit]