By Nilda Rego
Posted: 11/22/2010 11:45:58 AM PST
Updated: 11/22/2010 11:57:28 AM PST
Ever since 1933 the Ina Coolbrith Memorial Poetry Prize has been awarded for the best unpublished poem by a student at any of the University of California campuses, the University of the Pacific, Mills College, Stanford University, Santa Clara University or St. Mary's College.
The winner gets recognition and around $500. But who was Ina Coolbrith?
Her name is not as readily recognized as those of her many friends -- Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Joaquin Miller and Jack London, to name a few. She had a park named after her on Russian Hill in San Francisco. After she died in 1928, the California legislature not only adjourned in her memory, but named a mountain peak for her in the Sierra. In her day, she was really somebody. News of her death appeared in newspapers across the country.
She was regarded as one of the most noted poets of the West. She was California's first poet laureate, a position she held from 1915 until she died. Her poetry probably would not win the Ina Coolbrith Memorial Prize today. It has become outdated, too flowery and Victorian for this age of sound bites.
In her time, she was known as a beautiful, talented woman who gathered other talented writers around her and helped them thrive. But while she received praise from the likes of James Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Queen Marie of Romania and Alfred, Lord Tennyson, she was never able to support herself just by her writing.
Ina Donna Coolbrith was born in Nauvoo, Ill., in 1841. Her parents named her Josephine, a name she apparently never liked. Her father, Don Carlos Smith, was the brother of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion. Don Carlos died when Ina was only 4 months old. Her mother, who bitterly opposed polygamy, retook her maiden name of Coolbrith, left the Mormon church and married William Pickett, a printer and lawyer.
In 1852, Pickett decided to join the Gold Rush to California. Ina remembered that trip and vividly described it for an Oakland Tribune reporter in 1921: "The realistic experience of the memorable travel days burned into my mind so I can never forget. I remember when we came to the desolate Nevada desert no one in the train knew the way. There was a single Indian who followed us and indicated he could lead us across." She remembered the adults didn't know whether they could trust the Indian, but they had no other choice: "There was nothing to do but accept his apparently good intent ... once more the long string of oxendrawn schooners headed for the west. Intenser (sic) became the heat. Stinted cups of water were doled out to allay the parching of our tongues; half buckets of water were given the cattle to prevent, if possible their stampede from uncontrollable thirst." The cattle did stampede when they reached a river.
Ina said that some of the cattle "over drank" and died. It was a relief when they got to the Sierra.
Ina called the mountains "friendly." While the elders set up camp, Ina took her two little brothers, went for a walk in the Sierra and promptly got lost. Her brothers began to cry.
"Finally my brothers sobbed themselves to sleep, and I laid them down in the ferns and waited -- just waited. Then it was dark.
No moon, only now and then a star shining down between the branches." She fell asleep and was awakened the next morning by one of the men, who had searched all night for the missing children.
"Brawny Dick carried all three back to camp, where prayers of thankfulness were raised that we were saved from the fierce, desperate lions of California, already known among the emigrants as vicious and dangerous." The wagon train was led over the summit by famous Indian scout Jim Beckwourth. He had discovered a pass on a previous trip.
He put 10-year-old Ina in front of him on his saddle, and she became the first white child to come to California through the Beckwourth Pass.
Pickett tried his hand at mining, but soon gave it up and moved the family to San Francisco, where he found a printing job. That didn't satisfy him, so he moved everyone on to Los Angeles.
Ina went to a private school, where she discovered she could write in rhymes. At 16, her first poems were published in The Californian. Newspapers up and down the state published her poetry.
She was such a beautiful teenager that she was chosen to lead the grand march at the Los Angeles ball and fiesta accompanied by Pio Pico, the former Mexican governor of California.
At 17, she married Robert Carsley, an iron maker and part-time actor. It was a disastrous, abusive marriage that ended in a very public divorce three years later.
Pickett then moved his family to San Francisco. Ina taught school to help support the family and also did much of the housework. She met Bret Harte, then editor of the Overland Monthly.
She was hired as a journalist, and one of her poems appeared every month in the popular magazine.
It was at the magazine that she met Mark Twain and Charles Stoddard.
Stoddard was quoted as saying Ina was "divinely tall and divinely beautiful." Ina's flat on Russian Hill became a gathering spot for all the literary lights of the city. She, Harte and Stoddard became known as the "Golden Gate Trinity." In 1871, she was asked to write the commencement ode for the graduates of the three-year old University of California. There were only five graduates at the time, and all were male. Her ode was called one of her best works.
Next time: Ina meets Joaquin Miller and gets another job.
Contact Nilda Rego at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FONTE: Alameda Times-Star