Friday, May 31, 2019

Ode to San Francisco, a legacy beer, and Ina Coolbrith

Writers have waxed poetical about beer and alcohol for millennia, and I can say from experience that more than a few poems have been recited while drinking; but as far as I know, this is the first time a poem has been featured on a beer can.

After a decades-long hiatus, Lucky Lager is on the shelves again with a new label that features a poem by Ina Coolbrith, the subject of my biography, Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California's First Poet Laureate. San Leandro's 21st Amendment Brewery is brewing the lager.

Hatch advertising in San Francisco, which designed the label, chose a short ode, "To San Francisco," a poem that Ina wrote while she was living in New York from 1919 to 1923.

To San Francisco

Fair on your hills, my City,
Fair as the Queen of old,
Supreme in her seven-hilled splendor — 
You, from your Gate of Gold,
Facing the orient sunburst,
Swathed in the sunset gleams,
Throned in an ultimate glory,
City of mists and dreams.

Ina wrote a sheaf of poems during the four years that she lived in New York starting at the age of 79, many of which described her beloved San Francisco. Nearly all of her "New York poems" were published posthumously in her final poetry collection, Wings of Sunset, including "To San Francisco."

Prohibition began in the first winter that Ina lived in New York, and didn't end until 1933, five years after her death. The General Brewing Corporation began brewing Lucky Lager in San Francisco's Bayview the year after Prohibition ended.

Ina wasn't a fan of the temperance movement, a social and sometimes militant insistence on the abstinence of alcohol. As Oakland's public librarian, she was told by the board of trustees in 1886 to order temperance books. She chose six. The wife of one of the trustees wrote up a list of 22, which Ina pared down to nine. The board insisted she buy all 22 books.

"All right! I did it: but I'm mad," she wrote one of the board members who was also a friend. "If it would do any good... I should say fill all the shelves with these books. But it doesn't. It is such a namby-pamby, boshy, imbecile, Sunday school method of doing nothing."

Although her Mormon relatives wouldn't have approved, Ina liked to imbibe at times. One evening, she apparently had one to many with
Charles Warren Stoddard, who along with Ina and Bret Harte formed the Golden Gate Trinity of writers. The next day she wrote Charlie, "Do you know what it is to feel like a stewed witch? Because I have heard of such a feeling, and I believe I am experiencing it today."

More than a connection to alcohol, the ode chosen for the label of Lucky Lager is a fitting choice to honor San Francisco. It's also a serendipitous choice. The Ina Coolbrith Circle, a poetry and literature group that formed in 1919 when Ina was still alive and still meets today, will hold its 100th banquet to announce the winners of its 100th poetry contest in November 2019 — a good reason to celebrate Ina and California poets with a toast of Lucky Lager!

I've been handing out cans of beer like calling cards. You can find a place to buy the beer here.