April is National Poetry and Women's History Month
In her nearly 87 years Ina Coolbrith overcame incredible hardships, suffered humiliation but also found joys and recognition across the country and the world. Her early poetry while in Los Angeles brought her recognition as California’s singer-poet. Although she played the accordion and guitar, the “singer” appellation relates to her lyricism in writing of the beauty, variety and joy of the natural setting. Much of her life-long feelings for the state continued to be reflected in her written words.
After the loss of her job at the Oakland Public Library(1893,) she floundered financially and emotionally. Still in Berkeley, she supported her niece and her children, often two brothers, Joaquin Miller’s daughter Calla Shasta, and others who came and went. Her savings soon dwindled and she was in dire straights with no idea of where her income might come from. As had happened before and would again, fellow writers and other artists came to her rescue. In later 1894, Ina returned to San Francisco and the Russian Hill area that was her emotional home.
She sold her Berkeley house, lectured wherever she could and made some money with the sale of her first book and poems published elsewhere; friends helped as her earnings were meager. Her next job came in1898 as librarian at the Mercantile Library. Nearly 20 years earlier she had been made an honorary member of the exclusive men’s Bohemian Club, one of only four women so honored. The club continues to day as an enclave in the redwoods of Sonoma County as well as the Nob Hill institution. It has gathered politicos, wealthy men, artists and educators…still dominated by men. Ina was offered a position as the librarian in 1899. Both positions were won for her behind the scenes by friends who battled sexism on her behalf.
Throughout her life, Ina collected boarders, lovers, and substitute sons, sharing her home and earnings to support their talents and whims. Charles Warren Stoddard who, with Bret Harte she’d worked at the Overland Monthly in the 1870’s was a special friend, probable lover. On a trip to Hawaii, he took a young lover….revealing his homosexuality. Ina appears to have continued to love him, with visits, letters and mutual support. Late in life, Ina became enamored of young Carl Seyfforth, a Norwegian gay pianist of promise. She encouraged Seyfforth even when he failed to follow treatment for his TB and depression, often squandering funds she provided or secured for him. He died in 1927 without fulfilling his promise.
Ina didn’t want for women friends, supporters and assistants. In 1895 she got peritonitis followed by pneumonia to the point there were news stories of her impending death. Josephine Zeller, a friend, moved in and nursed her, staying on as housekeeper. It was a relationship that continued until the 1920’s. Zeller became severely mentally ill with rages and threats to Ina whose frail health imperiled her. By mid-life, Ina had rheumatoid arthritis that affected her breathing, and her limbs, especially her feet and hands; as she aged walking became increasingly difficult as did her breathing. By her 80’s, Ina spent four winters in NYC, escaping SF’s fog and Zeller. Her stays in NYC brought relief but she couldn’t afford summer rates and would return to CA. She spent her last three years or so with her niece, Ina Lillian Cook, in Berkeley.
April 18, 1906 brought the horrendous earthquake and fire to Ina’s doorstep. By this time Ina had two nearly completed manuscripts: an autobiography and A History of California Literature. She had a collection of some 3000 signed first editions, untold numbers of letters, paintings by William Keith, Indian baskets and mementos of her life. Robert Norman, her renter, found and returned her scrap book of poems, clippings and other pieces. Her home survived the earthquake but not the deliberate dynamiting and fires. Once again, friends and connections came to her rescue, helping with housing, funding and emotional support.
As early as 1865, Ina hosted salons in her home. These continued for while in her isolation in the East Bay but diminished as her low energy, long hours at the library and inability to write continued. In1895, she resumed her tradition which served to sustain her emotionally and creatively Wherever she lived, she persisted in welcoming artists into her presence, including in NYC where she was often feted and celebrated.
The world of poetry was changing at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Romanticism and nature took a back place to works of writers like e e cummings, Amy Lowell, Ezra Pound and the rise of free verse. California writers were generally poorly understood or accepted by the Eastern literati for many decades. While Ina was resistant to the newer forms in poetry as they grew, she still gathered many admirers who championed her work. In 1915, in anticipation of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition coming that fall, she was named California’s first Poet Laureate…therefore, also the first woman and the first laureate among all US States. It took the legislature four years to acknowledge her status and they did not provide a stipend.
Ina Coolbrith’s poetry appeared in many newspapers and magazines. As her output slowed in the latter part of the 19th century, it was hard for her to find resources and friends often gave her leads or introduction. She produced only three collections of her Poetry A Perfect Day and Other Poems, 1881; Songs of the Golden Gate, 1895; and Wings of Sunset, (1921?)
"And away, away, on passionate wings, My heart like a bird at thy window sings." from FEBRUARY
" Today I call my baby's name. and hear no lisped replying: Today--ah, baby mine, today--God holds thee in His keeping." from THE MOTHER'S GRIEF
"Hark, from the budding boughs that burst of song! And where the leagues of emerald stretch away. How rings the meadow-lark's ecstatic lay And all the hills the liquid notes prolong." from MARCH
"With meadow scents your breath is rife; With redwood odors and with pine: Now pause and thrill with twofold life Each spicy leaf I twine." from WITH A LEAF OF LAUREL; commemorates Ina and Joaquin Miller planning a laurel wreath for him to lay at Lord Byron's grave
Photo by Ansel Adams, 1924
Ina died on February 29, 1928 and is buried next to her mother at the Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. Her Mormon background and kinship with its founder Joseph Smith, her disastrous marriage and the loss of her infant son were not widely known until after her death. A marker was placed on her grave 60 years later; a small park on Russian Hill shows her beloved city below and a mountain near Beckworth Pass bears her name.. The Ina Coolbrith Circle first met in the December before her death and continues now.
1. Wikipedia, biography and Ansel Adams portrait of Ina
2.George. Aleta, Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate, Shifting Plates Press, 2015
3. Coolbrith, Ina, A Perfect Day and Other Poems, 1881, Classic Reprint Series, Forgotten Books, date unknown. Source for above snippets of her work
Arletta Dawdy lives and writes in the Northern CA and rites of SE Arizona, . Her Huachuca Trilogy is available on Amazon and your favorite bookstore by request: Huachuca Woman, By Grace and Rose of Sharon.