Helen Adam was born in Scotland, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. She began writing poetry at a very young age. When she was 14, her early poems were compiled and published in her first book, The Elfin Pedlar (1923). After attending the University of Edinburgh, she worked as a journalist in London. In 1939, she visited the USA with her mother and sister, but the outbreak of World War II meant that their residency became permanent. She lived in New York City before settling in San Francisco, California, where she joined a circle of influential poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Madeline Gleason, and Jack Spicer. Their San Francisco Renaissance movement was a contemporary of the Beats. Besides poetry, she also produced collages and wrote a successful opera, San Francisco's Burning (1963). She was one of only four women whose work was included in Donald Allen's landmark anthology, The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (1960). She collaborating on two films with experimental German filmmaker Rosa Von Praunheim.
In her later years, she faded into obscurity but there is now renewed interest in her work thanks to literary scholars and biographers, particularly Kristin Prevallet.