Book Review: Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate

Ina Coolbrith was named California’s first Poet Laureate in 1915. A century later, Aleta George published her biography, which I recommend you all find copies of and read.

Ina grew up as a child in Los Angeles, published her first poem in the Los Angeles Star at 15. She married at 17 there, lost her only child, divorced by age 21, and moved to San Francisco. When her sister Agnes, died, she supported her niece and nephew while also caring for her mother who died 2 years later. As a prominent writer and editor, she hosted many California writers and artists in her homes in San Francisco and Oakland: Mark Twain, John Muir, Mary Austin, Warren Stoddard, Isadora Duncan, George Sterling, and many more. She was Oakland’s first public librarian and spent grueling long hours there and also encouraged the voracious reading of young people such as Jack London.

She was also the daughter of Agnes Moulton Coolbrith and Don Carlos Smith, Joseph Smith Jr.’s younger brother. After Don Carlos died, Ina’s mother married Joseph as one of his plural wives. She felt neglected in her relationship with Joseph and after his death, left the Church and took her children to St. Louis where she remarried before traveling west to California.

Ina took her mother’s maiden name and kept her connection to the Latter-day Saints a secret, probably because after the news of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, it was not safe to be a Mormon or associated with them. However, there are some letters between Ina and her cousin, Joseph F. Smith, whom she corresponded with until his death.

I would love to share all about her life: her accomplishments, her many and unrelenting troubles. Joaquin Miller left his daughter with her to raise while he wandered Europe as many (male) writers did at that time. Trying to support her extended family, she worked 14 hours a day in the Oakland library for 2 decades until the library’s board fired her. She lost most of her life’s work of creating a literary history of California in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire. In her later years she was taken advantage of monetarily by a young pianist who used her as his patron, causing her to borrow against her life insurance policy to support him. But you should all read the book instead.

Despite the honors granted to her: honorary degrees and the title of Poet Laureate of California, she did not have a headstone at her burial place in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland until the Ina Coolbrith Circle, a literary society in honor of Ina, raised money for one in 1986.

I did not know about Ina Coolbrith until reading this book and I am overwhelmingly impressed with her. I also learned more about the conflicts between East Coast literary publications and West Coast in the early 20th century, about Oakland history, and more about a bit of Mormon history.

I really recommend this book. At the very least, read her wikipedia page and learn about the most influential former Mormon poet in history.

Do you know, you were the first one who ever complimented me on my choice of reading matter. Nobody at home bothered their heads over what I read. I was an eager, thirsty, hungry little kid — and one day, at the library, I drew out a volume on Pizzaro in Peru (I was ten years old). You got the book & stamped it for me. And as you handed it to me you praised me for reading book of that nature. Proud! If you only knew how proud your words made me.

Jack London
Second from the left is Ina Coolbrith as part of the “Champions for Humanity” sculpture at the Henry J. Kaiser Memorial Park in Oakland, CA.

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TopHat is putting her roots down in the Bay Area with her husband and three children. She loves the earth, yarn, and bicycling.

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2 Responses

  1. marilynmcphie says:

    Thanks for reviewing this book. I’ve been fascinated with Ina Coolbrith since reading an earlier biography published by BYU press — and printed in purple ink! If you’re ever in Berkeley, CA, there’s one of her poems in the Addison Street Poetry Walk.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. She does fascinating.

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