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Helen Adam and Jack Spicer: Birds of the Fifties

By Annie Finch

Poetry of the 1950s has added some rare notes to its scale the last year or two thanks to two badly-needed editions , Kristin Prevallet’s A Helen Adam Reader (National Poetry Foundation) and Peter Gizzi/Kevin Killian’s My Vocabulary Did This to Me: Collected Poetry of Jack Spicer (Wesleyan)


A Helen Adam Reader is a necessary book.  Helen Adam an important poet; in fact, she rocks. And until this book, her work was almost impossible to find.  I can attest to this since when I first decided to read Adam several years back (inspired, I think, by a conversation with Ron Silliman), I had a tough time locating any of her books—though it was worth the effort.  Born in Scotland, memorizing Milton at an early age, Adam wrote traditional ballads so skillfully, courageously creepy  that, after moving to the West Coast, she captivated Robert Duncan and Spicer and ended up playing a key role in the San Francisco Renaissance.

This book collects all Adam’s published poetry, some of it not included even in the out-of-print books. It also includes drama and fiction by Adam; correspondence with Duncan; biographical and critical introductions; several fascinating interviews with Adam (she sometimes composed on a bicycle, had tunes in mind for her poems, thought Blake was definitely not insane, and once had a job sweeping up gold dust); a facsimile of a book-length ballad illustrated by Duncan’s partner Jess; a collection of Adam’s poems with accompanying musical scores; and a great DVD with facsimile manuscripts, images of her gruesome collages, film clips, and recordings.  No wonder Don Share singled this one out for a Poetry Foundation 2007 pick when it came out.  And it all hangs together.  As Ange Mlinko wrote (in a review in The Nation, here) “Adam may not have invented a new form, but she did create a world.”

Duncan described the effect of Adam’s poetry on him as “the wonder of the world of the poem itself, breaking the husk of my modernist pride and shame.”  Adam seems to have had a similarly liberating effect on Jack Spicer, another poet whose densely wrought, often highly metrical lyrical power belies the casual, sprawling stereotype of 1950’s Beat poetics.  In an interview in A Helen Adam Reader, Adam claims that Spicer’s poetry workshop was one of the most interesting she ever took, and describes how adeptly he chose the Two of Swords to represent her during a Tarot exercise.

Gizzi and Killian’s collection (reviewed at length here) is the first edition of Spicer’s poems in almost 30 years and the first to collect all his published work in one volume.  It shows Spicer as an eclectic poet trained, like Adam, in ancient languages and traditions (he studied Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon, among other languages); driven, like Adam, by inner certainties and the demands of a poem’s rhythm and imagination; and devoted, like Adam, to bridging warring forces of poetics through a singular magic.  Seemingly inhabited by hosts of voices, from Yeatsian to Frank O’Haraesque, Spicer is compelling in the juxtaposition of his simplicity and innocence with his openness to pain and cynicism.   Like the Adam volume, this book will add to the current reexamination of received poetic traditions and complicate the raw/cooked dichotomy that has dominated our idea of the poetry of this era.

Jack Spicer, from “A Postscript to the Berkeley Renaissance”:

What have I lost?  Spook singer, hold your tongue.
I sing a newer song no ghost bird sings.
My tongue is sharpened on the iron’s edge.
Canaries need no trees.  They have their cage.

—-Helen Adam,  from “The Birkenshaw”:

The harp stands in her hollow mountain,
And whiles the harp will sing,
Pure and strong is the harp’s voice
With none to plck a string.

The harp utters the truth o’ love,
And tae a’ the host that hears
A thousand years are but as a day,
And a day a thousand years.

Jack Spicer:
The Song of the Bird in the Loins

“A swallow whispers in my loins
So I can neither lie nor stand
And I can never sleep again
Unless I whisper you his song:
“Deep in a well,” he whispers.  “Deep
As diamonds washed beneath the stone
I wait and whisper endlessly
Imprisoned in a well of flesh.

“At night he sometimes sleeps and dreams.
At night he sometimes does not hear my voice.
How can I wound you with my well of sound
If he can sleep and dream beneath its wounds?

“I whisper to you through his lips.
He is my cage, you are my source of song.
I whisper to you through a well of stone.
Listen at night and you will hear him sing:

“A swallow whispers in my loins
So I can neither lie nor stand
And I can never sleep again
Unless I whisper you his song.”

Helen Adam:
The Chestnut Tree

I caged my love in the early spring.
He beat his cage with a broken wing.
He beat his cage with a broken wing
Through the languid nights of summer.
Beside my window a chestnut grows,
A chestnut tree with its towering snows,
Where a breeze from Paradise gently blows,
And joy is the next new comer.

I’ll hang his cage in the chestnut tree,
In the chestnut tree, in the chestnut tree,
Among the haunts of the drunken bee,
‘Mid a fragrance overpowering.
Those bees are drunk with the honey wine,
With honey wine and the hot sunshine.
They’re raving drunk with the honey wine
In the chestnut flowering, flowering.

Oh! Then, perhaps, he may sing to me,
In the chestnut tree, in the chestnut tree,
May sing as loud as a drunken bee,
Down the green and golden gloaming,
When royally drunk with the honey wine,
With honey wine, and the hot sunshine.
He’ll sing, and swear he is mine, mine, mine,
While the bees are roaming, roaming.

The body caged, but the heart gone free,
I want his wild heart singing for me
In the chestnut tree, in the chestnut tree,
With a music fierce yet tender.
I want his song while the sunlight flows
Through the chestnut tree with its towering snows,
While a breeze from Paradise softly blows
And sighs for the heart’s surrender.

Hush, hush, the chant of the roaming bee.
I know he never will sing for me,
Though I hang his cage in the chestnut tree
Where joy is the next new comer.
For my sweet sake he never will sing.
He beats his cage with a broken wing.
He beats his cage with a broken wing
In the bee-hive house of summer.

Comments (14)

  • On April 27, 2009 at 1:28 am Terreson wrote:

    Interesting. The two of swords is the card of consternation, strife, indecision, and uncertainty.


  • On April 27, 2009 at 10:16 am Roberto Planos wrote:

    Thanks Annie!

  • On April 27, 2009 at 3:12 pm Dale Smith wrote:

    Annie, thanks for this: both books are essential reading. And they take part in a recent flurry of significant West Coast collections: Joanne Kyger’s About Now (National Poetry Foundation, 2007); Philip Whalen’s Collected Poems (Wesleyan 2007); Robin Blaser’s Holy Forest (UC Press, 2007); The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth (Copper Canyon, 2004); as well as new work by George Stanley and others….

  • On April 27, 2009 at 3:28 pm Travis Nichols wrote:

    Thanks, Annie. These were two of my favorite reads of last year. Pardon a digression, but this seems as good a place as any to ask about an often mentioned member of the Berkeley group whose poems I’ve been trying to track down for a while as yet to no avail: Harold Dull. Does anyone know where to find his work (besides in the White Rabbit editions I can’t yet afford (selling kidney soon!). He seems like a fascinating figure, and a Seattleite to boot.

  • On April 27, 2009 at 3:51 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Here is Helen Adam on youtube:


  • On April 27, 2009 at 4:10 pm Don Share wrote:

    Travis and others interested in Harold Dull – click here:


    There’s a link to a PDF there which has a selection of his work; you can buy a copy of his collected poems, Finding Ways to Water, for under 20 bucks here:


  • On April 27, 2009 at 4:21 pm Travis Nichols wrote:

    Thank you, Don. That was not exactly what I expected (what’s wrong with the arms in those images? Can they be real?), but I’m grateful nonetheless. I think.

  • On April 27, 2009 at 9:06 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Wow, what a hoot. And how cool. Who knew!!! Makes me think of what some other members of the Berkeley Renaissance might be doing for a living, were they alive now . . . Jack Spicer running medicine lodges . . . Duncan channeling consultation sessions . . .

    Seriously, I have done a lot of bodywork and once scheduled a Watsu session I had to cancel. I’m intrigued by it even more now, especially given the explicit connection made to his poetry, and am looking forward to reading the downloaded book. Thanks Don!

  • On April 27, 2009 at 9:22 pm Annie Finch wrote:

    Thanks Thomas. This is one of the clips on the DVD. Not a poem in her usual mode; I think I saw her perform it at St. Marks Poetry Project sometime in the 1980s, having no idea at that point who she was.

    By the way, I’ve been wanting to post the text of Don’s citation of the Reader as it appeared on the Poetry Foundation website, since I find it so apt:

    “As eerily powerful as Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” as polemically anachronistic as Spenser’s “Faerie Queen,” yet as contemporary-sounding as Charles Bernstein, Adam’s fiendish ballads are an off-kilter connection to an ancient poetics that still turns out to have lots of life left in it.”

    I love the comparison to Spenser, a poet I have a real fondness for as revealed in the discussion on an earlier thread.

  • On April 28, 2009 at 3:41 am john wrote:

    Adam was marvelously featured in that great documentary “Poetry In Motion,” from 1982, by Ron Mann — I’d love to see that film again (it’s been over 25 years!); will have to track it down — as I will have to track down her book! Thanks Annie.

    I’ve always found this quote from Duncan’s bio statement at the back of “The New American Poetry” genuinely moving, as well as a paradoxical opening shot of post-modernism — paradoxical because post-modernism has so often been associated with chronic irony, and Duncan was one of the least ironic of poets.

    “In grasping the inspiration of Helen Adam, in admitting her genius, I was able to shake off at last the modern proprieties — originality, style, currency of language, sensibility and integrity. I have a great appetite for approval from whatever source, and only the example of this poet who cares nothing for opinions but all for the life of the imagination, for the marvellous that is the grain of living poetry, saves me at times.”

  • On April 28, 2009 at 2:38 pm Catherine Halley wrote:

    Thanks, Annie. I hadn’t heard of Helen Adam until now. Maybe we can do a piece on her for poetryfoundation.org.

  • On April 28, 2009 at 7:18 pm mearl wrote:


    I spent most of the afternoon today with an anthropologist, whose book I’m translating… on the history of nationalist movements in Galicia and the Minho. Together these two provinces, one Spanish the other Portuguese, comprise that corner of Northwest Iberia which is so strange and gorgeous. Galician (the language) is halfway between Portuguese and Castilian. Its resurgence (reinvention) began more or less at the end of the 19th century after a hiatus of hundreds of years. Richard Zenith translated a collection of Galician “cantigas” which date back more or less to the time of the troubadours…but then gradually with the consolidation of the Spanish state, the language entered a period of dormancy, except perhaps at the village level. I love the arcana of my adopted peninsula, but my anthropologist is very high-strung. He has four kids and a short attention span.

    But what a relief to move from ethnography back to poetry. After he left I spent a half hour swimming through the poems you put up. I know Spicer’s work, but not what you published, and I only knew of the existence of Helen Adam. What a revelation, the way she brings Scottish balladry into that 1950’s and 60’s zeitgeist. The effect is both delightful and haunting. I followed Thomas’s link to a wild video where she sings a bizarre funeral song about rats and roaches and Tompkins Square wearing big 3-d glasses with thick black frames, and a floral print dress; it’s filmed in what seems and unbearably dark and cluttered apartment – it’s a glorious performance.

    Do you know W.S. Graham’s work (no one ever talks about him)?

    Today, Tuesday, I decided to move on
    Although the wind was veering. Better to move
    Than have them at my heels, poor friends
    I buried earlier under the printed snow.

    ( First lines of one of his most famous poems, “Malcolm Mooney’s Land”)

    Did people talk about him at all when you were in England.


  • On April 28, 2009 at 9:46 pm Don Share wrote:

    Thanks for this, Martin, and I love that you mention W.S. Graham – speaking of not being “major” enough, I was prevented from doing my dissertation on him because, well, you know. But he is a marvelous poet, and fortunately Faber recently put out a new collected poems (the old one wasn’t actually complete) – only available, I think, in Canada and the UK, but obtainable online. I never thought of comparing him to Adam, but it makes a lot of sense – and they’re pretty much contemporaries, born just 9 years apart!

  • On April 29, 2009 at 9:50 am john wrote:

    I don’t know why I hadn’t checked out the clip Thomas linked to, but Martin’s description made me think it might be from the documentary I had seen, and it is! Thanks, Thomas and Martin.

Posted in Uncategorized on Sunday, April 26th, 2009 by Annie Finch.