"California is a Poem"

Excerpt from Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California's First Poet Laureate by Aleta George

Chapter 1. "California is a Poem"

On a hot July afternoon in 1856, fifteen-year-old Ina Coolbrith walked home from school in Los Angeles. In one hand she carried a book satchel, and with the other she fanned her face with a hat. Her damp cotton dress clung to her tall frame and her curly dark-brown hair fell from where she had pinned it that morning. “The day was tired out with the heat and I was glad to reach one of the small streets,” she later said. “Tho’ the pepper, lime and locust trees along the sides were drooping, the brea [tar] dripping from porch and roof eaves, and the sidewalks, of the same material, in a mood of such melting tenderness that the brown, bare-limbed little muchachos and muchachas no longer printed them with their small toes, but were resting their roly-poly bodies in the open doorways.”[i] When it cooled down later in the day, entire families would bathe in la zanja madre, the local watering hole where vaqueros galloped up to the water in dusty storms.
Ina was attending a public school for the first time. She had learned to read and write at home, but never studied arithmetic, grammar, and the rules of composition. Her mother, Agnes Moulton Coolbrith Smith Pickett, could read and write, but used no punctuation in her letters. Ina’s two years of schooling in Los Angeles would be the only formal education she would ever receive. She remembered the school, Los Angeles’s first, as a “square brick building set upon the open plain, with, as yet, no tree or vine to modify its ugliness, or oven-like comfort.”[ii] The isolated site at Second and Spring Streets was chosen to keep students away from the distractions of the plaza, the heart of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles. Los Angeles had changed since California joined the Union six years earlier, but it was still more a pueblo than a city. Cattle roamed fenceless hills, and vineyards and orchards sprawled across the surrounding countryside. Within the city limits there were at least seventy-five vineyards, and in autumn the scent of the crush filled the air as Indians stomped on the grapes in large vats from dawn to dusk. The majority of the people who lived in Los Angeles were direct descendants of the eleven families of Indian, African, and Mexican descent who had come to Alta California from Mexico in 1781. The landowners of the rancheros that surrounded the pueblo owned second homes on the plaza where they flashed their wealth with silver-studded saddles and hosted fiestas that could last a week. Cockfights were common, as was correr el gallo, a popular form of entertainment that required participants to grease the neck of a rooster, bury it up to its neck on the side of the road, and grab it while riding by at full speed.
With the Gold Rush came Anglo-Americans who changed the names of Calle Principal and Calle Primavera to Main and Spring Streets, and where saloons, gambling halls, and whorehouses were established to serve the incoming miners, outlaws, and gamblers. The newly arrived Americans had marginalized much of the Mexican population, and bandits resistant to the takeover roamed the mountains east of Los Angeles. Nearly everyone armed themselves with pistols and bowie knives in what had become the most lawless town in the West. “This is an awful – awful town, Joseph, to live in, an awful town,” Ina wrote her cousin. “I dont [sic] believe there is another place in the world, so small as this town is, that has more crimes committed in it every day.”[iii]
If her sensibilities resisted the rougher elements of the pueblo, Ina was already being changed by the landscape and cultural charms of the place. Sixty years later she told a reporter, “As a girl I lived in Los Angeles when Los Angeles was still a Spanish town, but the old saying that in familiar places there are no wonderful things was exemplified in my case. I was brought up in the midst of wonderful things and did not realize it until they had all passed away.”[iv] Before coming to California, Ina played only Scottish songs on her guitar. In Los Angeles she learned to strum songs of romance and heartache in the Spanish style. She also learned to speak the dominant language of the pueblo, and for the rest of her life wove Spanish words and phrases into her poems, letters, and speech. The landscape of Southern California seared images into her brain so crisp that even seventy years later she wrote about cactus fences, gardens with fountains, and the shimmering Los Angeles River that flowed to the sea. The pueblo provided her with stories, such as the one repeated by Ella Sterling Cummins in The Story of the Files: “[Ina] was standing by the road one day when some Mexican-Californians came riding by, with jingling spur, and embroidered saddle, and arms full of flowers. ‘See the pretty little Americana,’ called out one of the gallant swarthy race, and as he spoke, he showered his flowers upon her.”[v]
On another occasion, Ina attended a ball with her older sister, Agnes Charlotte. To kick off the festivities, Don Pío Pico, the twice appointed Mexican governor of Alta California, bowed before Ina and said, “Will the Muchachita Americana do me the honor of opening the ball?”[vi] Ina accepted and joined Pico in dancing the fandango, a lively form of flamenco that starts slow and increases to triple time as the dancers keep pace with clicking castanets and beating tambourines. Writer Gertrude Atherton wrote, “An uglier man than Pío Pico rarely entered this world.”[vii] Ina never mentioned Pico’s looks when she described what for her had been an auspicious occasion.
On that hot July afternoon that Ina walked home from school, she turned the corner and a weak breath of wind delivered a scrap of newspaper to her feet. She discovered that the clipping contained a profile about Edward Pollock, a self-educated man who had come to California from Philadelphia in 1852 and that had become the most widely known California poet. Ina became so engrossed by what she read that she forgot about the need to find shade. Years later, in a lecture called “Gossip: Personal Reminiscences of Early California Writers,” Ina told her audience why the clipping was significant. She explained that as a girl she loved poetry, and called herself “its child lover.”[viii] She believed that poetry permeated the realm of lofty ideals and quixotic love, and was “so fine an essence as to belong to those akin to the Immortals.”[ix] She pictured poets to be mythical beings who wrote about shores she had never seen. While it was standard to find poetry in California newspapers in the 1850s, the majority of those poems were either written by famous (and dead) English poets, or by local scribblers who imitated them. Pollock’s poems were different. “Evening” was set in San Francisco and began, “The air is chill, and the hour grows late / And the clouds come in through the Golden Gate.”[x] Before moving to Los Angeles at age thirteen, Ina had lived in San Francisco for a short time and seen the fog rolling in through the gate. Pollock’s poem was set in a place that 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.”[xi]
That night Ina pasted the clipping in her scrapbook, a used patent office report she filled with scraps of verse. Her stepfather, William Pickett, was quick to criticize her use of the office ledger. “Tut! Tut! Spoiling a mighty good book, Sis, spoiling a might good book!”[xii] This from a man who only quoted Robert Burns’, “Highland Mary.”
Several weeks later, Ina’s teacher, Miss Hayes, asked the class to write about their childhoods. Ina chose to complete the assignment in verse. Perhaps she felt emboldened by “Chandos Picture,” Pollock’s tribute to Shakespeare, in which he says, “But who shall dare to tread where Shakespeare trod / Or strike the harp he sounded?”[xiii] Ina did dare and wrote an eight-stanza poem called, “My Childhood’s Home.” It began, “Sweet home of my childhood, the home of my heart / Fond mem’ry oft turneth to thee.” She didn’t name her childhood home, but it is clear that her nostalgia was meant for the Mormon city of her birth, Nauvoo, Illinois, nestled into a bend of the Mississippi River.[xiv]
Ina was born Josephine Donna Smith on March 10, 1841. Her parents Agnes Coolbrith Smith and Don Carlos Smith gave her the name Josephine to honor her uncle, Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Church of Christ, a name that was changed to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Donna, her middle name, was given to recognize her father, Don Carlos, the prophet’s youngest brother. Her family nicknamed her Inez, which she later clipped to Ina.[xv]xv Ina had two older sisters, Agnes Charlotte, four, and Sophronia, two. The family lived a few blocks from the Mississippi river, and a stream ran through the cellar of the house. In the cellar, Don Carlos edited and printed Times and Seasons, a monthly Mormon newspaper. Adjacent to Nauvoo was an 800-acre swamp buzzing with mosquitoes, and until the Mormons drained and filled the swamp several years later, hundreds of people died of malaria. They did not know that the scourge came from mosquito bites. It would be another fifty years before scientists discovered that mosquitoes were the vectors of the disease.
Four months after Ina was born, malaria hit her family. Don Carlos nursed his wife and children back to health, but he died on August 7, 1841, one week after his six-year wedding anniversary. He was twenty-five years old. Two years later, Sophronia died of scarlet fever, and Agnes buried her second child next to her husband. The family’s grief lasted for years. One month before Ina’s fourth birthday, John Smith, Don Carlos’s uncle, gave Ina a patriarchal blessing that recognized their losses.
It is unknown if his blessing brought her comfort. She had discovered her own. Even at an early age, Ina turned to the natural world to salve her grief and find healing. In “My Childhood’s Home” she described a spot in Nauvoo that had “a wildwood, by the murmuring rill / That flowed through the green, grassy glade.” It was a peaceful place, hidden by flowers and ivy, where as a girl she played in the “calm, evening hours.” The most striking feature of the wildwood was an “old, old oak” with great arms and a wide canopy where she played, and where her community came to pray. She rested on a little white cot among the flowers, vines, and moss to watch the light through the trees and listen to the water melodies: “Music—rich, soft and low, that has power to impart / A pure, holy calm to the sorrowing heart.”[xvii]
After Ina's teacher Miss Hayes read “My Childhood's Home,” she thought Ina had plagiarized it. Ina recreated her teacher’s reaction in her lecture, “Gossip.”
“Where did you get this?” said Miss Hayes.
“I made it up,” said Ina.
“Why did you write it in this way?”
“Because it was easier,” said Ina who started to cry because she thought she had done something wrong.[xviii]
Miss Hayes sent Ina to the principal, who summoned Ina’s mother. Agnes assured the principal that Ina was capable of producing verse, and explained that Ina had been reciting original poetry to her dolls for years. The principal sent “My Childhood’s Home” to Henry Hamilton, the new editor of the Los Angeles Star. Hamilton ran it, and it was Ina’s first published poem.

[i] Ina Coolbrith, “Gossip: Personal Reminiscences of Early California Writers” (lecture, Pacific Coast Women’s Press Association, San Francisco, CA, April 10, 1911), Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
[ii] Coolbrith, “Gossip,” Bancroft.
[iii] Ina Coolbrith to Joseph F. Smith, March 19, 1857, Church History Library, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
[iv] Edward F. O’Day, “The Laureate of California,” The Lantern, November 1917.
[v] Ella Sterling Cummins, The Story of the Files: A review of Californian Writers and Literature, (San Francisco: World’s Fair Commission of California, Columbian Exposition, 1893).
[vi] Jeanne E. Francoeur, “Ina Coolbrith, Our Poet—In the Past and Present,” The Woman Citizen, October 1913.
[vii] Gertrude Atherton, “The Pearls of Loreto,” The Splendid Idle Forties, (Kentfield: Allen Press, 1960).
[viii] Coolbrith, “Gossip,” Bancroft.
[ix] Coolbrith, “Gossip,” Bancroft.
[x] Edward Pollock, “Evening,” Poems of Places, An Anthology in 31 Volumes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ed. (Boston: James R. Osgood & Co., 1876-1879).
[xi] Coolbrith, “Gossip,” Bancroft.
[xii] Coolbrith, “Gossip,” Bancroft.
[xiii] Edward Pollock, “Chandos Picture,” Outcroppings: Being Selections of California Verse, (San Francisco: A. Roman and Company, 1866).
[xiv] Ina Coolbrith, “My Childhood’s Home,” Los Angeles Star, August 30, 1856
[xv] Joseph Smith III called Ina “Cousin Inez” in his memoirs, Joseph Smith III and the Restoration (Missouri: Herald Publishing House, 1952). There is some debate whether her first name is pronounced EE-na or Eye-na. See: Aleta George, “The 'Eye' in Ina Coolbrith,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 28, 2014.
[xvii] Ina Coolbrith, “My Ideal Home,” Los Angeles Star, August 22, 1857.
[xviii] Coolbrith, “Gossip,” Bancroft.