In Chapter 17 of Chronicles of Old San Francisco I set down the highlights and main story of Ina Coolbrith. As the editing of the book dragged on, this chapter was an add-on a year after I sent in the manuscript. I had a short time to research and write the book and was anxious to get out of the 1800s but Coolbrith’s life and accomplishments kept reverberating in me so I sat down and distilled her life in the 1800 words allotted for each chapter. When the book ran long and one chapter had to be cut, Coolbrith stayed in.
This January I met Aleta George at a meeting and she sought me out because of this chapter. At the same time I was seeking to meet her. I found out that George had spent 10 years meticulously researching and writing Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate
Published by Shifting Plates Press last month, the book debuts three months before the 100th anniversary on June 29th of Coolbrith’s becoming the first Poet Laureate of California (and the U.S.) by being crowned with a laurel wreath at SF’s 1915 Pan Pacific International Expo. At 362 pages the book is an exhaustive study that deserves to be heralded as “The Book” on Ina Coolbrith. George told me that she researched the pronunciation of Ina’s name and concluded that it was “eye-nah.”
George documents how Ina began life in Nauvoo, Illinois in 1841 as Josephine Donna Smith. She was named Josephine after her uncle, Joseph Smith who founded the Church of the Latter Day Saints and Donna after her father, Don Carlos Smith and nicknamed Ina. Four months after Ina’s birth her father died and her mother, Agnes Moulton Coolbrith whose name Ina eventually adopted, abided by Mormon custom and entered into a “plural marriage” with Joseph Smith. When Smith was killed three years alter and the Mormons who were driven out of Nauvoo, Ina’s mother married William Pickett, second cousin to General George Pickett, the famous leader of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg.
All this happened before Ina could read, let alone write the poetry that she later become famous for. And before she reached San Francisco, the city she’s most associated with.
I’ll leave it to George to fill you in on that journey as well as about what Ina made of her life and how she influenced writers such as Jack London and Joaquin Miller. I will just add a few tidbits to give you the flavor and passion of George’s writing and a sense of Ina.
I have always wondered what it would be like to write a biography. To spend that much time on someone I would want to care for them a great deal. So I resonated with George’s prologue to the book where she confesses, “Writing a biography is an intimate affair. I love spending time with Coolbrith, her friends, and her times. Her devotion to poetry in a place and time when few women led literary lives made her a trailblazer, and her struggle to balance art, family, and work still resonates today.”
What comes through in the book and makes it worth spending the time to read is the sheer strength of Ina along with her modesty about her poetry (which hasn’t weathered the test of time well). Ina worked long hours as Oakland’s first librarian to support the children left in her care following her sister and brother-in-law’s deaths died at great cost to her own life and poetry writing. About that she wrote, “I have dreamed entire poems, and stranger still, I have lost them to other writers. This is one example. I had the idea for a poem one day, and did not have time to write it … Six weeks later I opened a new magazine and there was my poem! Just as I had thought of it, almost word for word. I could hardly believe it … That is why I say poem are things. They will find birth.”
Ina never wavered from connecting and supporting new writers and was a revered founder of the Ina Coolbrith Circle which met in her home on Russian Hill. You can visit Ina Coolbrith Park which is worth the uphill trek to experience Russian Hill, the park’s city views, and its plaque about Ina embedded in a rock.
Ina deserves the last words, and they will be about her city.
To San Francisco 1929
Fair on your hills, my City,
Fair as the Queen of old,
Supreme in her seven-hilled splendor-
You, from your Gate of Gold,
Facing the orient sunburst,
Swathed in the sunset gleams,
Throned in an ultimate glory,
City of mists and of dreams!