Helen Adam was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on December 2, 1909. Adam showed talent at an early age, publishing her first book of poems, The Elfin Pedlar (Hodder and Stoughton, 1923), when she was fourteen years old. Praised as a child prodigy, Adam went on to publish two more poetry collections by the time she turned twenty. She attended Edinburgh University for two years. After leaving the university, she worked as a journalist in London. In 1939, she, along with her mother and sister, traveled to America to attend a cousin’s wedding. World War II began two months later, and the three women decided to stay in America permanently. They lived in New York City for several years before settling in San Francisco.
A large part of Adam’s literary life developed in San Francisco, where she became part of what is now called the “San Francisco Renaissance.” In 1954, Adam began taking Robert Duncan’s poetry workshop at San Francisco State University’s Poetry Center, where she primarily wrote her signature ballads. In 1957, she formed a poetry performance group called The Maidens, which included Duncan, Madeline Gleason, and James Broughton, among others.
Adam was known for her gothic ballads—lush, lyrical, fairy tale narratives that are rife with magic and fantasy and delight in macabre motifs such as lust, violence, entrapment, and savagery. Even though Adam was a master of traditional balladry and classical English poetry, she was still associated with the Beat poets and the San Francisco school of poets. Her work was influential to many poets—including Duncan, Broughton, Gleason, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Spicer—and inspired them to learn more about the Scottish ballad tradition that she represented.
In 1964, Adam published Ballads (Acadia Press) and moved to New York City, where she performed her work with Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, and Patti Smith. She also produced two versions of her musical, San Francisco’s Burning, which she wrote with her sister. In her lifetime, Adam published twelve volumes of poetry and a short story collection and appeared in several films. She was the subject of a documentary directed by German avant-garde filmmaker Rosa von Praunheim.
After her sister died in the late 1980s, Adam became a recluse. She died on September 19, 1993, in Brooklyn, New York.