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Helen Adam (1909-1993)

Helen Adam was a Scottish-American poet and visual artist, whose work features tales of fatal romances, sadistic sexual affairs, jealous lovers and vengeful demons.

Helen Adam
Helen Adam, 1981. Photograph by LaVerne Harrell Clark. Courtesy of The University of Arizona Poetry Center. Copyright Arizona Board of Regents.

Born in Glasgow in 1909 and raised in Dundee; the elder daughter of a country minister, Helen Adam was just fourteen years old when she published her first book of poems, The Elfin Pedlar (1923). In the same year the Dundee Advertiser tipped her for future greatness.

She went on to publish two more poetry collections; Charms and Dreams from the Elfin Pedlar's Pack (1924), and Shadow of the Moon (1929), before the age of twenty, and by the time she started her studies at the University of Edinburgh, her works were well known and widely reviewed.

Scotland in America

After two years at Edinburgh, Helen moved to London to work as a journalist before a family wedding just before the outbreak of war in 1939, took her to America. The changing situation in Europe persuaded Helen, her mother and her sister to stay permanently, and it was from here that she allowed herself to break free from her past life as a child prodigy, whilst retaining her artistic roots in the magical folklore of Scotland.

After initially settling in New York and finding work as a governess, she found her perfect fit in the San Francisco of the 1950s, where she became part of what is now called the San Francisco Renaissance.

Her circle of friends and confidants extended throughout many different groups of artists and writers during the 1950s and 1960s, but she is particularly associated with Robert Duncan, Jess Collins, Madeline Gleason, and Jack Spicer.

Adam was known for her gothic ballads featuring tales of fatal romances, sadistic sexual affairs, jealous lovers and vengeful demons. Through her work she reshaped Scottish ballad traditions by creating independent female characters and by positioning men as prey rather than liberators. She influenced the Beat poets and was a vital and central figure of the time who had a unique influence on poetry and the way it was performed.

Later life

In 1963 she collaborated with her sister on a ballad opera entitled San Francisco's Burning, and then in 1964, published Ballads and moved to New York City, where she performed her work with Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, and Patti Smith.

She was one of only four women whose work was included in Donald Allen's landmark anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960 and her life was the subject of a documentary film directed by experimental film maker Rosa von Praunheim.

After her sister died in the late 1980s, Adam became a recluse. She died in September 1993, in Brooklyn, New York.

Additional sources

Wikipedia: Helen Adam

The Reluctant Pixie Poole (A Recovery of Helen Adam's San Francisco Years) by Kristin Prevallet

The Saltire Society: Helen Adam