Helen Adam (1909-1993)

We’ve been featuring these past two weeks now, Allen in conversation with the balladeer, Helen Adam.  Here’s rare footage of her performing one of her own ballads, the classic (and hilarious!)  “Cheerless Junkie’s Song”  (from Ron Mann’s 1982 movie, Poetry In Motion)

and here’s the audio from her June 1976 Naropa Institute reading with Robert Duncan. Allen, in his introduction, confesses and declares:

“Helen Adam’s work was always a puzzle to me when I first got to San Francisco because she was writing straight classical rhymed ballads and I had come off my own father’s rhymed lyric verse and found it antipathetic and was revolting against it, and so, I, taking over Robert (Duncan)’s course, (his) poetry workshop at the San Francisco State College in  1955, I beat Helen Adam over the head with my idea of what modern poetry should be, after William Carlos Williams form.. But, fortunately, she resisted my malevolent influence, and continued writing ballads and songs, which she was trained to do by ear (and which she does exquisitely), so that, finally, many years later, I find myself writing rhymed ballads and songs, and looking to Helen Adam for encouragement and advice, and find her one of the most sympathetic ears for poetry (sympathetic listeners), and one of the most outrageously..self-right (sic) writers among my contemporaries and elders.”

Duncan, in the course of the reading, re-introduces her:

“..I think I will present Helen Adam. If Allen portrayed us [he and Adam] as august stars of a sky we, after all, designed, and, while we might have been charitable and put someone else there as stars, unfortunately, we’re entirely human, and so, when we built the sky, lo and behold, we did the same things (that) the gods did when they built the sky, we put ourselves in there, and then we tried to see to it that it didn’t become something ghastly, like..the stars..the sky of our southern hemisphere, (where there are so many stars of the first order that nobody wants to memorize them all). Helen Adam, however, in my universe, is a star.. above the first order, must be a star of the magical zero order (if any of you know your tarot cards, (you) know that that is the generative egg that began the world, and it seems valid, of course)”.

Approximately sixteen-and-three-quarter minutes in, Adam begins with a recitation of her poems “Dog Star Run” (“Where are you running to..?)  and “Song For A Sea Tower”, followed by “a Scotch one” (sic), “Kiltory”, (not of her invention). This is followed by “one with quite a lot of Scottish words in it, but I don’t think it’s too difficult, it’s more or less broad Scots”, “Counting Out Rhyme”. She continues with, “a little reincarnation poem”, “Coming Back Blues” (“a very nasty little poem that, really”), before reciting her poem, “Limbo Gate” (“This is a grim little poem that I have about the end of the world..I’m sure you all agree with me that the crack o’ doom is very near (but it doesn’t really matter, because we’ll all (going to) be reincarnated in different forms!)). She concludes her first set with a few selections from her 1963 musical, “San Francisco’s Burning” (“I used to sing it around the coffee houses, doing all the parts myself, and then it was produced, of course, with actors and things, who did it, but I always enjoyed doing it all, in a greedy way”). She performs “The Hanged Man” “The Kept Young Man”, and two memorable characters, “Neil Narcissus” and “Loving Lily Babe”.
Following comments from Allen, she continues with a second set – “In and Out of the Hornbeam Maze” (“This is a poem that I’ve just written about a maze, and, in Scotland, there are still old mazes in sort of deserted gardens here and there, and some of them used to be called “Troy-town”, because it was something to do with the falling of the walls of Troy, and usually on May-day, the village people would run round and round, inside the maze, and there was something to do with circling inside (a) maze that always seemed to me very mysterious”), “A Swordsman From France” (“I just found out quite recently that terrible King Henry VIII, when Queen Anne Boleyn was awaiting execution in the tower.. in those days the best swordsmen were supposed to come from France. And King Henry was too mean to send for a swordsman from France, and she had to sell the jewels he had given her to get one..”), “Bone Bright” (“I was reading about tantric Buddhists contemplating in the charnel field, and they visualize their own bodies as one suppurating sore, of which nothing remains but a skeleton, until finally, from that skeleton, the core and essence of man, a flame shoots out..”), “Pounding Bone Blues” (“This is skeletons again”) and, finally (“(In) this last one, you have to imagine me as a sort of teenage hippy-boy, with a great mop of hair, you know, and a very beaten-up guitar”), “Cheerless Junkie’s Song”

The invaluable Naropa archives also has audio of two classes, three years later, in 1979.
In the first (July 1979), she “focus(es) on the appeal of narrative verse” – “Topics include the works of Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, James Thompson, Allen Ginsberg, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with a list of the great narrative poems and discussions of aspects of witchcraft and the darkness of Scottish border ballads”. It may be accessed here.
The second (August 1979 – in two parts) – looks at the function of repetition and “poets as music makers and (the tradition of) the ballads” (and includes illustration from Percy Bysshe Shelley, W.H.Auden, Rudyard Kipling (“A Smuggler’s Song”), as well as further examples from the English ballads, and a Q & A session) and may be accessed here and here.

Another essential spot is Susan Howe’s 1978 WBAI-Pacifica radio program (She performs her work and is heard in conversation with Susan Howe and Charles Ruas – here) 
(Charles Ruas, it was, incidentally, who had produced, the previous year, a radio presentation/revival of “San Francisco’s Burning” – That may be listened to here).

The essential text (with much of the original work out-of-print) remains Kristin Prevallet‘s 2007  A Helen Adam Reader, published by the National Poetry Foundation at The University of Maine. Intelligent reviews of that book (by Richard Price (originally in the TLS) and Ange Mlinko (in The Nation)) may be read here and here.

Here’s (from 1987, one of Bob Holman‘s WNYC-TV’s “Poetry Spots”) another Helen Adam video – “Deep In The Subway“.

Nobody quite like Helen!

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *