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Michael Sowder

ADAM, HELEN (1909-1993) Helen Adam was a central figure in the san Francisco renaissance, best known for her ballads of the supernatural. Robert Duncan described her ballads as the "missing link [that] opened the door to the full heritage of the forbidden romantics" (435). Seemingly anachronistic, the eerie power of Adam's ballads stands in sharp contrast to the cerebral sophistication of the late modernism dominant at the midcentury, and her work greatly appealed to younger poets seeking a sense of poetry's primordial power.

Growing up in Scotland, Adam published her first book of ballads, The Elfin Pedlar, at age 14. She came to the United States in 1939 with her sister and lifelong companion, Pat, initially living in New York City, but eventually moving to San Francisco in 1953. There she became associated with the beats, and especially with the poets who gathered around Duncan and Jack spicer. Adam was renowned for her readings, which she sang. Her published volumes included illustrations, frequently her own surrealistically inspired collages (see surrealism). A major event in the poetry scene of the period was the 1961 premiere of her ballad opera, San Francisco's Burning, which was later revived in New York, where Helen and Pat settled in 1964.

While Adam experimented with a range of forms, her central preoccupation remained the narrative ballad; she expertly developed many formal variations without straying far from the essentials of her romantic models. Although she most often reworked 19th-century folk and gothic material, Adam also wrote updated ballads depicting the darker side of contemporary urban life. She had an intimate knowledge of the occult, which particularly manifests itself by showing women as agents of forbidden power. Her ballads depict desire as an insatiable force that lies largely hidden in conventional life due to repression and fear, but which impinges on the everyday and can burst forth as an overwhelming passion or seduction. As with William Blake's Songs (1789-94), which are an important precursor, the combination of frightening fables presented in a fairy-tale or childlike manner give her work a sinister charm.

Adam's best-known poem is probably "i Love My Love" (1958). A newly wed husband finds himself increasingly entangled by his wife's diabolical hair, driving him to murder her; the hair springs up from her grave, singing, "I love my love with a capital T. My love is Tender and True. / Ha! Ha!," hunts down the husband, and strangles him. This poem demonstrates Adam's characteristic strengths: the combination of horror and humor with the trancelike repetitions of the ballad form, the unselfconscious directness of the narrative presentation, the witch-wife manifesting the husband's fear of passion and the irrational, and the vengeful return of the repressed.

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