Blog Our Sweet Old Etcetera

Behind the scenes at the Scottish Poetry Library

The Beat Pixy

Kind people often offer us books, when they are clearing out their shelves, and just occasionally in amongst these donations we find some gems. Several weeks ago three boxes arrived, and I put aside a couple of items from the 1920s I thought needed some quiet attention, not least because they looked to be the work of a girl, and included an inscription and a letter in girlish handwriting. I’ve now had a closer look, and it’s most intriguing.

Part of this particular donation  was obviously collected by a poetry-loving Dundee minister in the first two decades of the 20th century, and the books in question belonged to him or his wife, one of them sent by the child authoress herself.  The young lady was a daughter of the manse herself – Helen Douglas Adam, a child prodigy whose poems had been written down and saved by her mother from the age of four, and whose work appeared in print when she was 12 – published by Hodder and Stoughton – as The Elfin Pedlar and Tales Told by the Pixy Pool (1923) and Charms and Dreams from the Elfin Pedlar’s Pack (1924). Hold on – even if those titles are enough to put you off, keep reading. 30 years later that little girl had morphed into Helen Adam, companion of the Beat Poets, active in the San Francisco scene, author of ballad-form poems full of dark and erotic undertones. (Read about her life and work in our brief biography).

Helen Adam later dismissed her juvenilia as shameful doggerel, but she was too hard on herself; the poems are in some instances surprisingly good for her age. Reviews of the first book are quoted in the second:  ‘extraordinary talent for a writer of such tender years’ and ‘an extraordinary sense of form, an extraordinary  sense and handling of rhythm and rhyme’, as well as ‘has aroused so much interest among psychologists’. So – is there any hint in the little pixy poems of the dark work to come? It would take a much deeper reading than I have done to pronounce upon that, but she was already writing narratives in a manner echoing the ballads, and amongst the rosebuds and birdies there are plenty of mortals pining for the kisses of fairy princes, and children lured into the hills by elfin voices …