Helen Adam

2 December 1909 – 19 September 1993

Poet, Collagist & Photographer

Helen Adam was a 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.

Born in Glasgow 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. When compared to Jess's collages, Adam's are strikingly simple. They combine two images—a beautiful man or woman, and a creature.

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.

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.

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." 

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, and Kent State University.

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