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Helen Adam

When Donald Allen chose Helen Adam for his influential anthology The New American Poetry (1960) he was making an unusual choice in several ways. Adam, born in 1909, was at least a decade older than most of the poets in the anthology. Frank O’Hara, Paul Blackburn and Robert Creeley were only in their mid-30s; John Weiners was even younger; only Charles Olson was Adam’s true contemporary. She was of course female, and that was another rarity: of over forty contributors only four were women. In an anthology where national identity was self-evidently a qualification for inclusion, Adam had neither been born nor brought up in America: like the English poet Levertov, a naturalised American, she was born and bred a Scot, and would retain her Scottish accent, vocabulary and strong identification with Scotland until her death in 1993.

Adam’s association with America was a kind of accident, but because Adam believed in the occult she may not have seen it as arbitrary. Visiting the United States with her mother and sister for a family wedding in 1939 they had been trapped there by the advent of war. Eventually all three settled together in San Francisco. Adam knew Allen Ginsberg and Jack Spicer as friends, and she was particularly close to Robert Duncan and his partner the artist Jess Collins. Present at the first reading of Ginsberg’s “Howl” in 1955, she was a member of both Jack Spicer’s Magic Workshop and Duncan’s poetry salon The Maidens.

Age, gender, and nationality may single out Adam as an unusual choice for Allen’s anthology, but perhaps these are over-determined categories for a sample set that is so small. In any case, the most striking measure of rarity in her work is arguably none of these, though each may help understand Adam’s astonishing difference: it is that almost all her poems are written in the archaic ballad form.

In her previous, British, life, Adam had been a child prodigy, publishing her first book of fairy ballads The Elfin Pedlar when she was barely a teenager. Shadow of the Moon in 1929 continues in superficially similar vein, but with an added sensuality and a gothic sizzle: “But now a horror fingers my heart, / A memory chills my bones. / I look in the faces of mortal men / And I see the eyes of stones.” (“Glen of Eyes”). Once the reader agrees to enjoy the idea of Fairyland perhaps they do not all deserve Adam’s later contempt. The ballads that emerge after the Second World War are a different species altogether, though, and you can soon see why Allen chose Adam’s poems.

They are relentlessly subversive: of traditional ballad content, of contemporary mores. “The Queen o’ Crow Castle” has a conventional hero Callastan, yes, and conventional heroes are surely meant to win the affection of their Lady. Tricking the Devil with a magic fish to do so is a little out of the ordinary, but is as nothing compared to the chilling fate awaiting poor brave Callastan. After all, the Lady in question is not traditionally meant to enjoy aforesaid hero for a night (though “Who then prevaileth? Who taketh that tower?” Adam winks at us as the lovers are inflagrante delicto) only to murder him, Bluebeard style, before dawn breaks. The shocked reader can only concur with Adam – “Rash is the mortal wha plucketh that flower!” – and leave the poem mulling broodingly with the crows (corbies) as they intone, “Kra, Kra, crackarus!”

In Adam’s world women are not only strong and enjoy all the pleasures of the flesh, they are lethal. In another poem, the fairest youngest sister of a stranded family of seven women turns out to be the one who kills that sacrosanct emblem of purity, monarchy and magical potency, the unicorn. She does so with intense but cold sexual predation, and the unicorn himself clearly enjoys it: “Upon the youngest sister’s lap he leaned his royal head. / She stabbed him tae the hert, and Oh! how eagerly he bled. // He died triumphant and content, his horn agin’ her knee. / The crescent mune fled doun tae meet the phosphorescent sea.” (“Counting Out Rhyme”). The fact that this is framed by the title as a children’s learning rhyme adds a further transgressive quality to it. Folktales, ballads and magic are strangers to neither lust nor violence but Adam is still unsettling: any parent would hesitate before introducing a child to her nursery rhymes in daylight never mind at bedtime.

They are serious but they are also, I think, funny: nervous laughter and a dead-pan Hammer Horror gleam is part of Adam’s attraction. Some poems, such as “Stable Boys’ Song” can only be described as rollicking. Their ability to be knowing but also to appear to believe the world they have created is another reason why Adam’s poetry is important within the wider post-modern context that Allen helped frame with New American Poetry. Adam heralds the retro-futurist adoption of ballad and fairy tale motifs now familiar in, for example, the works of Angela Carter and Liz Lochhead and, in film, Tim Burton. Adam was also a wonderful singer of her work (a little headteacherly, but singing with conviction) and she would sing other people’s poems even when they were not written for music. Some of her ballads are included on a DVD with this superb collection, as well as excerpts from her stage success San Francisco is Burning and surrealist collages. Kristen Prevallet has also brought together rare interview transcripts and written an extremely useful introduction, giving an account of Adam’s life and contextualising her within the San Francisco scene; Jess Collins’ artist’s book versions of Adams’ poems are also included in facsimile. Readers interested in more will find recordings on the Internet Archive Naropa University collection, where Adam reads many of her poems and gives several lectures (the text of one is reproduced in this book).

Donald Allen dropped Helen Adam when he revisited his famed anthology with The Postmoderns (1982). Scottish and British audiences fared worse, probably losing track of Helen Adam for more than half a century, perhaps until Edwin Morgan re-introduced her work in an essay in PN Review in 1999, “Scotland and the World”. This book should now place Adam’s poetry firmly back into both Stateside post-modern literary history and the post-war poetry of Scotland. Adam’s poetry is unique. As Charles Bernstein has said: “Her magical, macabre, magnificently chilling ballads open a secret door into the Dark.”

[A shorter version of this article was first published in The Times Literary Supplement as a review of A Helen Adam Reader, edited with notes and an introduction by Kristin Prevallet. The National Poetry Foundation, University of Maine. ISBN 978-0-943373737 ]

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