March 10, 2011

Birth of Ina Coolbrith

It was in Illinois that Josephine Anna Smith was born on March 10, 1842. History remembers her better as a resident of San Francisco, California, and poetry remembers her name as Ina Coolbrith. Her birth father was the brother of Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Latter Day Saints movement, though he died when she was only a few months old. Her mother then married Joseph Smith himself, becoming his seventh or eighth wife. After Smith's death, the family moved to Missouri then to California. To dissociate with their polygamist background, the family reverted to mother's maiden name, Coolbrith.

Ina Coolbrith (the first name comes from her nickname Josephina) was writing poetry before reaching her teen years. She was 14 when one of her poems first saw print. After a young marriage ended in divorce, she found her way to San Francisco, and there met literary figures of the west like Ambrose Bierce, Bret Harte, Joaquin Miller, and even Mark Twain. When she became a librarian, she turned her library into a sort of literary salon and meeting place — her home was used in a similar way.

In 1915, Coolbrith was named the first Poet Laureate of the state of California. Her poem "I Can Not Count My Life a Loss" (1881):

I can not count my life a loss,
   With all its length of evil days.
I hold them only as the dross
   About its gold, whose worth outweighs;
   For each and all I give Him praise.

For, drawing nearer to the brink
   That leadeth down to final rest,
I see with clearer eyes, I think;
   And much that vexed me and oppressed,
   Have learned was right, and just, and best.

So, though I may but dimly guess
   Its far intent, this gift of His
I honor; nor would know the less
   One sorrow, or in pain or bliss
   Have other than it was and is.

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