Book Review: A New Ina Coolbrith Biography

Ina Coolbrith CoverI was quickly drawn into this story that begins with fifteen year old Ina Coolbrith attending school for the first time in Los Angeles and being inspired by her discovery of the self-educated poet Edward Pollack. Until then, Ina had been exposed to more classical forms of poetry. “Pollock’s poem was set in a place she knew, and that cracked open a landscape of possibility inside of her. It served as a ‘revelation that poetry was, or could be, written in California.’” That revelation would lead her to write a poem for school that would become the teenager’s first published work.

Aleta George spent ten years pouring over newspaper and journal clippings, diaries, literary works, and even Coolbrith’s scrapbook to unearth the quotes, observations and insights that provide an intimate look into the relationships and events that shaped this remarkable woman, one who actively tried to avoid such exposure.

The first section of the book recounts Coolbrith’s early life among the Mormons of Illinois (she was the niece of Mormon founder Joseph Smith) and the move west to California. George carefully crafts the material into dramatic stories that, at times, are real nail-biters: the disturbing inner workings of the Mormon community, the tension between the government  and an increasingly belligerent Mormon leadership, the fallout from Coolbrith’s first marriage, and the family’s eventual move to San Francisco where they reinvent themselves.

Ina Coolbrith about 1871, age 29

Ina Coolbrith about 1871, age 29 [public domain]

It’s in San Francisco that Coolbrith blooms and matures: in notoriety, wit, and ambition. As her reputation as a poet grows, so does her confidence and the texture of her personality. George takes us into living rooms, parlors, and editorial offices where Coolbrith consoles, cajoles, and spars with the likes of Brett Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Mark Twain. Throughout, George weaves exquisite historical detail into the story, rendering 1860s San Francisco as a vivid stage for the narrative.

One of my favorite literary scenes was a gathering of writers at the Oakland hills ranch of Adeline Knapp in 1895. From notes taken by a reporter in attendance, we are are allowed to eavesdrop on what became something of a scholarly donnybrook over poetry. After a few lofty statements about it being “the language of the gods,” the hostess proclaims, “[Poets] tear the language from limb to limb in their efforts to express what is inexpressible, unexistent. They give us words, words, words, wrenched from their natural meanings, and arranged in all sorts of unnatural forms…” It’s just one example of the often caustic banter Coolbrith and her contemporaries toss at each other throughout the book.

George probes many of Coolbrith’s relationships throughout her life. Being a Charles Keeler fan, I was particularly touched by the accounts of their long, close friendship. Of a collection of her poetry Keeler once wrote, “It may not have been great poetry, but we were sure that it was genuine. It rang true.” But as time passes, we see the relationship  between them grow and deepen. Keeler becomes a champion of Coolbrith’s work and later likens her to “a poet with the artistry of an English Tennyson.”

Ina Coolbrith's library in her Russian Hill home

Ina Coolbrith’s library in her Russian Hill home [public domain]

As the title suggests, we witness much of Coolbrith’s life wracked with hardship, adversity and loss. At times, she must abandon her art altogether. Speaking of her poetry at one point, she tells her brother, “The bird forgot its notes and the wings their flight.” George does a good job of letting us feel the impact of these personal tragedies without becoming morose. Quite the opposite, we see in Coolbrith a resilience and determination to survive.

In the preface, George tells us, “Writing a biography is an intimate affair. I love spending time with Coolbrith…” Further on, she continues, “She loved California and worked to capture its natural beauty in language, something that I also strive for in my work.” We see that dynamic in play in George’s prose which is finely turned yet unobtrusive throughout. It is her enthusiasm and affection for Coolbrith and California that gives this biography its vitality and crystal clear resonance.

One thought on “Book Review: A New Ina Coolbrith Biography

  1. Thanks for this review, Keith. I’ll look forward to reading it…a fascinating poet. I share your piece on Nat Smith today with Vicki Werkeley who has written about Mendocino. She heard from his family and incorporated more about him in a revised edition.

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