Helen Adam Biography / Bibliography    

Helen Adam is best known for her participation in the San Francisco Renaissance where she inspired many poets—notably Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan—to explore the ballad tradition. Although she writes in a traditional form, Adam blends Victorian sensibility with modern consciousness. The rhyme and meter of her ballads arise from tradition and old world schooling, while the montage method utilized in her collages and films emerged from a post-World War II culture.

Helen Adam was born in Scotland in 1909 and published her first book of verse, The Elfin Pedlar, when she was twelve years old. She was hailed as a child prodigy and went on to publish two more collections of poems before she was twenty. Adam, along with her mother and sister, arrived in America in 1939 to attend a cousin’s wedding. When the war broke out, the three decided—since they had no real prospects in Scotland—to say in America and make a new life for themselves. They settled in New York for ten years, where Adam worked part of the time upstate as a farm worker picking fruit. After tiring of the city the “Adam family” picked up and moved West, staying for a short time in Reno, and finally settling down in San Francisco. Adam’s childhood success, however, was only the beginning of her literary life, and by the time she died in 1993 she had completed twelve books of poetry and one of fiction, a film, a successful musical, and several hundred collages.

A large part of Adam’s story takes place in San Francisco. She arrived on the literary scene in the 1950s, and soon after became a part of what is now called “The San Francisco Renaissance.” At first, when she started taking Robert Duncan’s poetry workshop at San Francisco State in 1954, the class was baffled by this woman, then almost fifty, who wrote primarily carefully-crafted supernatural ballads. Gradually it became apparent—especially to Duncan—that Adam, through her direct ties with the Scottish ballad tradition, was an important source of poetic information. He wrote in his biographical statement for The New American Poetry, Donald Allen’s important anthology, that it was Helen Adam “who opened the door to the full heritage of the forbidden Romantics. Her ballads were the missing link to the tradition.” This missing link with Romanticism and the ballad tradition, in terms of the literary history of the San Francisco poets, cannot be underestimated. Allen Ginsberg said “finally, many years later, I find myself writing rhymed ballads and songs and look to Helen Adam for encouragement and advice.” Aside from Ginsberg and Duncan, Jack Spicer, James Broughton, Madeline Gleason, and Jess, to name a few, were all significantly influenced by Adam and the tradition she represented.

In 1964 she moved to New York City where she performed her ballads with Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, and Anne Waldman. She produced two versions of her opera, San Francisco’s Burning, and became Dame Adam to the young poets and performers who surrounded her. She published five books and several chapbooks and starred in two films by the German avant-garde filmmaker Rosa von Pronheim.

After her sister Pat died in 1986, Adam became cheerless and refused to answer the door or cash assistance checks. She died a ward of the state in 1993. The presumed lost contents of her New York Apartment resurfaced ten years later, and immediately after the publication of A Helen Adam Reader, a box of her treasured rocks was magically found 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 a foreword by Rev. John A. Hutton and drawings by Helen Douglas Adam. 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. August Derleth. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House Publishers, 1961.

San Francisco’s Burning, songs by Helen & Pat Adam, illustrations by Jess [Collins]. Berkeley: Oannes Press, 1963.

Ballads illustrated by Jess [Collins]. New York: Acadia Press, 1964.

City 3 (1968). Eds. Marilyn Hacker and Samuel Delaney.

Selected Poems and Ballads. New York, NY: Helikon Press, 1974.

Turn Again to Me and other poems. New York: Kulchur Foundation, 1977.

Ghosts and Grinning Shadows: Two Witch Stories with collage illustrations by Helen Adam. Brooklyn: Hanging Loose Press, 1979.

Gone Sailing with drawings by Ann Mikolowski. West Branch, IA: Toothpaste Press, 1980.

Songs With Music with music transcribed by Carl Grundberg. 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 with drawings by Ann Mikolowski. Morning Coffee Chapbook 12, West Branch, IA: Coffee House Press 1985.

San Francisco’s Burning with additional lyrics by Pat Adam, illustrations by Jess [Collins], and a musical score by Al Carmines. Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose Press, 1985.

A Helen Adam Reader. Edited with notes and an introduction by Kristin Prevallet. National Poetry Foundation, Orono, ME, 2008.



Essays by Helen Adam:

Adam Helen. “A Few Notes on the Uncanny in Narrative Verse.” The Poetry Society of America Bulletin 70 (Spring 1980): 3-15.

Adam, Helen. “A Few Notes on Robert Duncan.” Scales of the Marvelous, edited by Robert Bertholf and Ian W. Reid. New York: New Directions, (1979): 36-7.

Interviews with Helen Adam

The Blaze of Distance: A Book of Poems and Interviews. Portland: The Oregon Coast Council for the Arts, (1979), n.p.

“Craft Interview with Helen Adam.” New York Quarterly 21 (1978), n.p.

“Helen Adam.” City #3, (1968). Issue devoted entirely to Helen Adam.

Anthologies in which Helen Adam’s work has appeared:

The Edinburgh Book of Twentieth-Century Scottish Poetry.  Eds. Maurice Lindsay and Lesley Duncan. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005.

American Poetry: The Twentieth Century. Library of America, 2000.

 “The Stepmother” and “Fair Young Wife” in August Derleth’s Fire and Sleet and Candlelight: New Poems of the Macabre. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1961.

“I Love My Love” in Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry. New York: Grove Press, (1960).

“In Harpy Land” (poem with collages) in Jonathan Cott and Mary Gimbel’s Wonders: Writings and Drawings for the Child in Us All. New York: Rollling Stone Press, (1980), 42-64.

Essays on Helen Adam:

Drachler, Rose. “Riding to Blokula.” Contact II 14/15 (Winter 1979): 9-10.

Finklestein, Norman. “Helen Adam and Romantic Desire.” Credences 3.3 (1985): 125-137.

Hershon, Bob and Maureen Owen. “Helen Adam, 1909-1993.” The Poetry Project Newsletter 152  (December 1993/January 1994).

Hornick, Lita. “The Haunted Land of Helen Adam.” Sun & Moon 9/10 (Summer 1980): 138-155.

McNail, Stanley. “The Eldwitch World of Helen Adam.” The Galley Sail 3.5 (May, 1958): 1-3.

Mernit, Susan. “Helen Adam: Gazing into Another Realm.” Contact II 14/15 (Winter 1979): 5-6.

Prevallet, Kristin. “Helen Adam, Ballads, Brandy...And the Beat Generation?” in On The Distaff Side: Beat Women Writers  edited by Ronna Johnson. Rutgers University Press, 2001.

_____________“Archival Encounters with Helen Adam.” Boxkite: An International Journal of Poetry and Poetics #2 (Fall 1998).

_____________ “The Reluctant Pixie-Poole: A Recovery of Helen Adam” in The Recovery of the Public World: Essays in Honour of Robin Blaser, His Poetry and

Poetics. Vancouver, B.C.: Talon Books, 1999.

_____________ “An Extraordinary Enchantment: Helen Adam, Robert Duncan and the San Francisco Renaissance.” The Edinburgh Review #97 (Spring 1997): 115-129.

_____________ “Sketch for a Biography of Helen Adam.” First Intensity Magazine #8 (Winter 1997): 158-162.

Ratner, Rochelle. “Love Song to Death.” Contact II 14/15 (Winter 1979): 8-9.

Shurin, Aaron. “Tuned to Return.” Poetry Flash 95 (February 1981): 1.

Chapters about Helen Adam in Books :

Duncan, Robert. “Preface.” Ballads by Helen Adam. Acadia Press: New York, 1964.

Davidson, Michael. “Helen Adam: Possessed by Love.” The San Francsico Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989: 179-187.

Finkelstein, Norman. “The New Arcady.” The Utopian Moment in Contemporary American Poetry. Bucknell, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1993: 83-90.