Saturday, August 8, 2020

Ina Coolbrith: A Bittersweet Life

Ina Coolbrith at age 30
Though she consorted with fellow writer Mark Twain, and was an influence on Jack London—both of whom tried hashish—it's doubtful Ina Coolbrith ever got the chance. Her duties to her family and others scarcely allowed her time to pursue her literary career, much less indulge in exotic pleasures.

Born into a Mormon family that was exiled and traveled by wagon train to California, her biography Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California's First Poet Laureate by Aleta George details the hardship she and many women of the time endured.

Fleeing an early abusive marriage in Los Angeles, Coolbrith and her family moved to San Francisco in 1862. When she wasn't busy taking care of her mother and siblings and their household, she was supporting them by working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week at the Oakland Free Library, where she was librarian. Her hours were so long that she usually stayed on a cot in the basement, eventually moving to Oakland.  

The hardest part of her arduous life was not finding the time to write, and watching her compatriots like Twain and Joaquin Miller (whom she named) have successful writing careers. She even cared for Miller's daughter while he went off and laid a wreath of California laurel she had made at Lord Byron's grave, something she longed to do. Miller read aloud Ina's poem to Byron as he placed her wreath: 

O winds, that ripple the long grass!
O winds, that kiss the jeweled sea!
Grow still and lingering as you pass
About this laurel tree.

As a poetess Coolbrith was published in prestigious journals like The Californian and the Overland Monthly, and among her fans were Ambrose Bierce and Alfred Lord Tennyson. She often held literary salons at her Russian Hill home, introducing new authors to publishers. 
Coolbrith at 65

In 1886, she befriended and mentored the 10-year-old Jack London, guiding his reading in her librarian role. London called her his "literary mother." Coolbrith also mentored the young dancer Isadora Duncan who later described Coolbrith as "a very wonderful" woman, with "very beautiful eyes that glowed with burning fire and passion."

Coolbrith held her librarian job for 19 years, until she was fired in a reorganization. She moved back to San Francisco where she was hired to be the Bohemian Club librarian and began to write a history of California literature and her own life, but lost her home and her work in the fire following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. 

By then Coolbrith was 65 and was often bedridden with rheumatism. Author Gertrude Atherton and Coolbrith's Bohemian Club friends found her a new home, and with a pension to support her, she resumed writing and traveled by train to New York City several times, connecting with other authors.

On June 30, 1915, Coolbrith was named California's first poet laureate, and she continued to write poetry until her death in 1928. An Ina Coolbrith Circle of admirers continues to meet and honor her memory.

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