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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Poet Laureate Ina Coolbrith

She was a poet, an editor, a teacher, a librarian, and a prominent figure in San Francisco’s literary community in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Called the “Sweet Singer of California” for her poem’s themes and content, Ina Coolbrith was also renown for her beauty: described as tall, with beautiful eyes that glowed with burning fire and passion. She was California’s first Poet Laureate, named as such on June 30, 1915.


Ina Coolbrith lived a long life and was awarded many honors. She was born in 1841 in Nauvoo, Illinois, but with a different name: Josephine Donna Smith, the niece of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. Her father died when she was an infant, and in 1844 her Uncle Joseph was killed by an anti-Mormon mob. Fearing for her life, Josephine’s mother abandoned the faith and fled with her young children to St. Louis, where she remarried. In 1851, lured by the Gold Rush, the family emigrated to California, finally settling in Los Angeles. On the long journey westward, ten-year-old Josephine read Lord Byron’s poems and the works of Shakespeare. The next year she started writing her own poems, which were first published in area papers in 1856.


In April, 1858, aged seventeen, she married; but Robert Carsley was an abusive husband, and she suffered further pain when their infant son died. When the couple divorced in 1861, she moved to San Francisco with her parental family, finding work as an English teacher. In 1862 she adopted her mother’s maiden name, legally changing hers to Ina Coolbrith. She held literary meetings in her home on Russian Hill, hosting poetry readings and topical discussions in the tradition of European literary salons, thereby meeting writers Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, Ambrose Bierce, Mark Twain and others, among them an eccentric poet named Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, whom she persuaded to adopt the pen name for which he is famous: Joaquin Miller.


Her poems were published in The Californian, a new literary newspaper formed in 1864 and edited by Bret Harte; in 1868, she supplied a poem for the first issue of the Overland Monthly, serving unofficially as co-editor with Harte in selecting material for the periodical. In 1871, she was the first female to be asked to write a commencement ode for U.C. Berkeley’s graduating class. A little later the Bohemian Club, founded in 1872 by males-only group of journalists, artists, and musicians who met regularly, named her an honorary member.


In late 1874—as caretaker for her own family members plus widowed author Joaquin Miller’s daughter—she needed full-time employment. Accepting the post of librarian for the Oakland Library Association, she moved there, working six days a week, twelve hours a day, in a job that lasted 19 years. She had little time to write, and published only sporadically; yet while there she mentored young artistic people such as budding writer Jack London and future dancer/choreographer Isadora Duncan.


In 1881 her poetry was published in book form, entitled A Perfect Day and Other Poems, which attracted the attention of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and other American and European literary luminaries, all of whom praised the quality of her verse. Coolbrith was commissioned to write a poem for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which she attended. A second poetry collection, Songs from the Golden Gate, was published in 1895.


By 1898 she was back in San Francisco, where she began working on a history of California literature—which she never finished—and served as an officer of the Pacific Coast Women’s Press Association. She was named President of the Congress of Authors and Journalists for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and in 1924 Mills College awarded her an honorary Master of Arts degree. The following year she published Retrospect: In Los Angeles. Though suffering from crippling arthritis, she continued to write verse, edit other writer’s work, and host her literary salons. She is quoted as saying “I want the Circle (of poets, writers and other literary friends) to live and be ever widening … to perpetually keep the history and literature … of California alive.”


Ina Coolbrith died February 29, 1928, and was buried in Mountain View Cemetery. Wings of Sunset, a collection of her later poems, was published in 1929. Today, members of the Ina Coolbrith Circle, a literary society, continue to pursue her mission.  Other honors include the University of California’s annual Ina Coolbrith Memorial Poetry Prize awarded to undergraduate students, Ina Coolbrith Park on San Francisco’s Russian Hill, and Mt. Ina Coolbrith, a tall mountain in the Sierra Nevada, near Beckwourth Pass.


March is National Women’s History Month.

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