Dale Says

May 18, 2021

Ina Coolbrith: The Saving Power of Poetry

Filed under: Colorful Characters, Historical Article — Mr. D @ 5:46 pm

On top of San Francisco’s Russian Hill, on Vallejo Street between Mason and Taylor, is a small park with wonderful views of the Pyramid Building and Bay Bridge. It’s a quiet and secluded spot where tourists and locals can rest, reflect, and read about the San Francisco poet the park is named for.

Ina Donna Coolbrith struggled throughout her life with personal loss, family obligation, and illness. But through dogged persistence she became one of the best-known and most loved poets of her time.

Born in Navoo, Illinois March 10, 1841, her mother named her Josephina after her uncle, Joseph Smith (founder of the Morman faith). Her father died of malaria when she was five months old, followed by her sister. Her mother re-married, moved the family (including 11-year-old “Ina,” as the family called her) by wagon train to California, and supported the family while her new husband invested in failed gold mines. The family relocated to San Francisco, and then Los Angeles.

Ina fell in love with poetry on the way west, reading Shakespeare and Byron, and making up poems during the long, dreary days on the trail. She published her first poem in a Los Angeles newspaper at age 15. Two years later she married Robert Carsely, an ironworker, who abused her, and she lost a baby boy. She divorced, moved to San Francisco, and changed her name to Ina Coolbrith (her mother’s maiden name).

San Francisco and poetry became her refuge. She taught school, wrote poems, and developed friendships with writers and poets of the day – including Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Charles Stoddard, Joaquin Miller, and Ambrose Bierce. When the all-male Bohemian Club formed in 1872, Ina was made an honorary member.

Ina’s responsibilities grew when her sister died and left two children in her care, followed by her ill mother, and Joaquin Miller’s daughter. Suddenly, Ina had a lot of mouths to feed. She became head librarian of Oakland’s library, where she worked for 18 years. When she was abruptly fired (without cause) she became the Bohemian Club librarian. From her house on Russian Hill, she hosted writing salons and composed poems. Over time, she became a leading West Coast poet, and her work was familiar to a generation of Californians.

Ina never re-married. Men called on her and friends (including John Muir) tried to play matchmaker, and while she was admired by many men and may have had a tryst or two, in the end, her true loves were San Francisco and poetry.

The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed Ina’s house and burned much of her writing. Friends took her in and collected donations to help rebuild her home on Russian Hill. She continued to write poetry and remained a vital part of the San Francisco literary scene for decades. She outlived most of her contemporaries and (despite severe rheumatoid arthritis) continued to write until her death at age 86, February 29, 1928.

There have been many tributes to San Francisco’s “Queen of the Meuses.” Books have been written about her, a mountain in the Sierras is named for her, and a park on Russian Hill is dedicated to her. But perhaps the utmost recognition was when she was named California’s poet laureate (the first in the U.S.) during the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

On the second day of the exhibition a standing-room-only crowd assembled to see Ina crowned. Poet Edwin Markham described her accomplishments. Senator Phelan introduced her. When the president of the University of California presented her with a laurel crown the audience cheered, waved white handkerchiefs, and threw flowers at her feet.

Ina was typically modest: “For those who are passed away and for my sister women,” she told the crowd, “I accept this laurel with deep gratitude and deeper humility.”

To San Francisco
By: Ina Coolbrith (1841-1928)

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!

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