From The Desk Of John Wesley Harding: “A Helen Adam Reader”

jwhlogofJohn Wesley Harding knows when he gets an email, phone message or a piece of postal junk addressing him as “John,” it’s coming from someone who’s never met him. He’s known to friends as “Wes,” since his real name (the one he uses in his second career as an award-winning author) is Wesley Stace. Harding’s 15th album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, depicts an artist well aware of what he does best: marvelously witty lyrics delivered in an emotion-wracked singing voice. Harding will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our Q&A with him.

ahelenadamreaderJohn Wesley Harding: “She wrote to raise gooseflesh,” says the review in The Nation. Helen Adam called it the “grue” (whence the word “gruesome”), which manifests itself in the audience’s shiver. That’s what the minstrels were going for. The beautifully produced A Helen Adam Reader (published by The National Poetry Foundation) has been a revelation to me. Adam was born in 1909 in Scotland, but found her home in the Beat-era poetry scene of San Francisco. (She sat in the front row at the Six Gallery in San Francisco when Ginsberg read “Howl” for the first time.) Adam was welcomed, it seems clear, because the city’s literati saw in her use of the traditional ballad form a direct link to the mystical Jerusalem past of William Blake and the mysterious hair-raising visions of Poe. Her emphasis was on performance; many of the ballads were sung. Her reliance (and I quote) on rhyme, rhythm and traditional narrative has seen her somewhat written out of the SF Beat story, despite her inclusion (one of only four women) in seminal 1960 anthology The New American Poetry. (She was then omitted from 1982 sequel The Postmoderns: The New American Poetry Revised.) But it’s Adam’s mastery of the traditional ballad form that will find her a new audience today. Joanna Newsom should be re-setting her lyrics to music as we speak. She probably isn’t, on the other hand; so it may sadly fall to me. Adam died in 1993, and it is truly amazing to me that we lived in San Francisco at the same time, that I could have passed her on the street. I may have noticed only a batty old woman.

A Helen Adam Reader is a perfect summation of and tribute to her career, including a DVD that includes plenty of audio of Adam in performance, films of the poet singing (including the wonderful “Cheerless Junkie’s Song”; watch a video after the jump), her collages, the scripts for and recordings from her successful ballad opera San Francisco’s Burning and much more. But all these wonderful extras pale beside the poetry. Very little can be found online, so you have to buy the book. I give one example, the first verses of “The Stepmother”:

My Lord’s young daughter in the earth finds rest
They laid her doll upon her shrouded breast
So the waxen image with its crown of glass
Is the child’s companion under churchyard grass

I had little liking for that silent child
With her ways so quiet, and her eyes so wild
And the first wife’s beauty in her wistful face
To stir his memories and mock my place

She had no playmates, and was much alone.
To secret cruelties I will not own
It was only, only that I could not bear
His smile of pleasure when he called her fair.

I shan’t spoil the ending.