Meet Helen Douglas Adam – the ‘infant poetess’ from Glasgow whose uncanny ballad poetry would find a home in the radical San Francisco artistic scene…
‘A little wee elf in coat of green / Dwelt in a tree so gray, / In the tiniest house that ever was seen, / Lit by the things that might have been, / And the light of yesterday’.[i]
This poem was written by a young girl called Helen Douglas Adam when she was between the ages of ten and twelve. Born in Glasgow, raised in Dundee and, for two years a non-matriculated student at Edinburgh University, she grew up to become a radical literary figure on the San Francisco Renaissance scene. Helen Adam’s life is a little like a fairy tale of a slightly surreal kind; but both she, and her work, have remained rather a well-kept secret.[ii] We discovered a copy of her first published volume, The Elfin Pedlar & Tales told by Pixy Pool (1923), whilst unpacking one Thursday afternoon in the Museum of Childhood’s book-vault.
¶ The child-poet, ‘living in a world of her own’
It is a fascinating and beguiling book, not least because it is a little piece of early twentieth-century Scottish children’s literature as well as a remarkable example of the ‘child as writer’, for the book was published when Helen was only fourteen at the start of a brilliant and wholly idiosyncratic artistic life. The volume is dedicated to her ‘gentle’ mother, Isabella, and contains a number of photographs — not only of Helen but also of her sister, Pat (who would for a time work as a journalist and illustrator, and to whom she remained deeply close all her life) — so in many ways the volume has the quality of a family ‘treasury’.
Divided into age-defined sections of her creativity — 4-6; 6-8; 8-10; 10-12 — the volume’s editor (the Rev John A. Hutton, a family relative) and publisher were clearly keen to present the young Helen in a particular light as a brilliant, fey, gifted child, not of this world: ‘From her earliest days her mind found beauty and deeper meaning in ordinary, everyday things. She loves flowers, not merely for their colour or their fragrance, but because they too in her view are sentient things that have to live their life in this hard world’ (p. vii).
In the preface Helen appears as a kind of embryonic folk artist, an inheritor and transmitter of tradition who is both solitary (‘she is happiest perched in the branch of a tree, living in a world of her own’, p. vii) and yet content to create a story intended to be ‘acted at a Christmas festival’ by her ‘school-class’ (p. vii). We’re told that her ballads and rhymes were written down by her attentive mother, some of which were composed ‘when playing with her dolls’ (p. vi) aged two. At the same time, her own creativity is almost disavowed at the start in the little prefatory image and text which beautifully frames the whole collection: in its corners dangle fairies, spiderwebs, and butterflies while we learn that these rhymes and stories have all come from a (female) elf who lives by the pixie pool in the woods.
¶ Dream-worlds, witch-maids & ‘the doom of loving’
Was this a book for children or adults? Who did the young Helen have in mind when she wrote about ‘Toadstool Town, where the goblins dwell’ (p. 99), her ballads of fairy abductions and changelings, the mother who asks quizzically of her child, ‘What do you see?’, or her version of the folkloric dream-inducing Sandman ‘(The Dream-Man’), all apparently between the ages of ten and twelve. In a later essay entitled ‘A Few Notes on the Uncanny in Narrative Verse’, Adam reflected on the stories which she ‘knew and loved as a child, because then the combined power of poetry and magic was especially strong’, and on how Scottish balladry had enchanted her through its imagining of worlds where ‘Birds talk to maidens, seals doff their skins and become men …’.[iii]
The Elfin Pedlar was certainly rapturously received by adults in the form of adulatory newspaper reviews of ‘the infant poetess’ whilst the Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford set the title play to music. For sure, there is a pretty Victorianism and sweetly child-like quality to some of the shorter poems where stars have fallen ‘out of bed’ or look ‘[l]ike wee candles burning bright’. But many also capture the dream world of a child (as in ‘The Dream Ship’, bound for the land of sleep) and bring to mind RLS’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.
Scots language infuses some of these poems (as it would her later mature work where the vernacular pulses through many ballads in a sensual, visceral way). Adam’s lyrics depict a natural, organic, living world where everything is interconnected, peopled by magical creatures and beings and keenly watched over by the child’s poetic eye. The narrator of ‘The Little Green House’ confidently ‘open[s]’ her door to let the wild things come and play. In one of the longest poems, ‘The Witch’s Daughter’, its brave and resourceful child-heroine, Marjory, rescues the titular protagonist: ‘“ Now you’re free”, said Marjory’ (p. 68) to the beautiful witch-maid ‘with midnight hair’ (p. 68). The latter subsequently tells ‘Marjory many things / I cannot here repeat’ (p. 68), and this female solidarity only grows from strength to strength as the girl proceeds to unspell the witch-maid’s enchanted beloved with the aid of a magical harp.
We know that Adam was an avid reader of fairy tales and ballads so such poignancy and pain — ‘the danger of love and the doom of loving’[iv] — could easily have been inherited from Hans Christian Andersen’s tales of unrequited love, or from the ill-fated lovers of traditional Scottish balladry. Even her girlhood poetry evinces what Adam herself called ‘the dark fascination’ of ‘the old tales and the old fears’.[v] In any case though, as Richard Price has noted, perhaps ‘any parent would hesitate before introducing a child to her nursery rhymes in daylight never mind at bedtime’.[vi]
¶ When Helen grew up ….
So what happened to Helen after she grew up? Having gone with her mother and sister to a family wedding in the United States, she remained there after war broke out, living first in Connecticut, then New York and San Francisco. She never left behind the world of Scottish folk tradition and balladry but instead transmuted it into new artistic and intellectual west coast contexts, working in the company of writers like Allan Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, and Jack Spicer. For Adam, San Francisco’s ‘history of literary innovation and eccentricity’ made for a very hospitable culture — a post-War ‘late Victorian bohemia’ where interest in occultism and mysticism, Gothicism and Romanticism flourished as well as avant-garde experimentalism and political sympathies for pacifism and gay rights.[vii]
Adam was famed for her spirited ballad performances (including those in New York with Ginsberg and Patti Smith), and became one of only four women included among the forty contributors to the influential The New American Poetry anthology by Donald Allen published in 1960. She worked in other media such as theatre, film, and photography, and created striking pictorial and textual ‘collages’. These possess a weird and hybrid beauty, a wonderland of skeletal winged creatures, fairies, harpies, Grimm-like forests, and ethereally sensual women on the verge of metamorphosis into something creaturely — ‘loveliest’ of experiences, as one collage proclaims. Perhaps they are the elder sisters to the young Helen’s active and desiring ballad heroines — and further testimony to how, in Kirstin Prevallet’s words, ‘she created, genuinely and without presumption, a realm of living and writing, of eroticism and passion, that was all her own’.[viii]
But it all started with a little girl in Dundee who so loved ballads that she composed her own. As an adult, Adam reflected that: ‘I always feel myself as still Scottish, and all my strongest memories are of Scottish countrysides, and the extraordinary unearthly quality in the lonely places, in the moors and glens’.[ix] Her work is slowly but surely being recovered and appreciated (interestingly it was Edwin Morgan in 1999 in his essay ‘Scotland and the World’ who was one of the first to draw attention to her significance in a Scottish context).
We were lucky to come across her first and probably now most overlooked book as a child-poet in the Museum of Childhood’s collection of forgotten treasures and curiosities. And we think that somehow Helen Adam would have approved of that.
[i] The Elfin Pedlar & Tales told by Pixy Pool by Helen Douglas Adam, with a foreword by the Rev. John A. Hutton. Drawings by the Author (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1923), p. 15. All subsequent references, unless otherwise stated, are to this edition.
[ii] In 2007 Kristin Prevallet produced a wonderful edition of Adam’s long out of print work, A Helen Adam Reader, with Notes and an Introduction (Ornon, Maine: The National Poetry Foundation, 2007); it also gathers together some fascinating archival material and interviews. See also Richard Price, ‘Helen Adam’, http://www.hydrohotel.net/Adam1.htm [accessed 9th February 2017]; the Scottish Poetry’s Library entry for Adam at http://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poetry/poets/helen-adam [accessed 9th February 2017]; ‘Helen Adam’ at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/adam/index.html [accessed 9th February 2017].
[iii] Prevallet (ed), pp. 351, 352. Adam’s essay first appeared in The Poetry Society of America Bulletin, 70 (Spring 1980), pp. 3-15.
[iv] A lovely phrase from Maureen Owen’s appreciation, ‘Helen Adam, 1909-1993)’, in Prevallet (ed), p. 381 (it first appeared in Poetry Project Newsletter, 152 (Dec. 1993-Jan 1994), p. 5).
[v] ‘Ghosts and Fairies and Unearthly Creatures of Scottish Folklore’, extracted in Prevallet (ed), pp. 387-90; it was found in Adam’s archive and may have been published in the early 1930s (p. 483).
[vi] http://www.hydrohotel.net/Adam1.htm [accessed 7th February 2017].
[vii] Michael Davidson, ‘The San Francisco Renaissance’, in The Cambridge Companion to Modern American Poetry since 1945, ed. by Jennifer Ashton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 66-79 (p. 67).
[viii] Kristin Prevallet, ‘The Reluctant Pixie Poole. (A Recovery of Helen Adam’s San Francisco Years)’ at http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/prevallet/adam.html [accessed 9th February 2017].
[ix] Interview with Adam by William Packard in Prevallet (ed), p. 335; it first appeared in the New York Quarterly, 21 (Winter 1978), pp. 13-23.
This post written by Sarah
Interesting article. I own a copy of Helen’s book, The Elfin Pedlar and tales Told by Pixy Pool, and find it amazing that she could write poetry of this standard at such a young age.
Could you please correct her name, though? It is Helen Douglas Adam, not Helen Duncan Adam.
Thanks for this, I will pass it on to the author!
All the best,