February 29, 2012

Death of Coolbrith: how true she was

Though born Josephine Anna Smith in Illinois, she was better known as Californian Ina Coolbrith. It is under the latter name that she died on February 29, 1928.

Coolbrith published her first book of poems while still a teenager and later became most-known as a librarian for several decades. She associated with several writers, both famous and forgotten, in San Fransisco and beyond - people like Charles Warren Stoddard, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, and many others. Tradition holds that she suggested an Indiana-born wannabe writer with the pretentious name Cincinattus Heine Miller change his look and use the pseudonym Joaquin Miller. Coolbrith's greatest claim to fame, however, came in 1915; that year, she was named California's first Poet Laureate. In her final years, however, her health was failing and her finances were low (despite continuously receiving honors, including an honorary degree from Mills College). The now-legendary photographer Ansel Adams took what might be her final photograph (a cropped version is included here). Her poem "When the Grass Shall Cover Me":

When the grass shall cover me,
Head to foot where I am lying;
When not any wind that blows,
Summer blooms nor winter snows,
Shall awake me to your sighing:
Close above me as you pass,
You will say, "How kind she was,"
You will say, "How true she was,"
When the grass grows over me.

When the grass shall cover me,
Holden close to earth's warm bosom, —
While I laugh, or weep, or sing,
Nevermore, for anything,
You will find in blade and blossom,
Sweet small voices, odorous,
Tender pleaders in my cause,
That shall speak me as I was —
When the grass grows over me.

When the grass shall cover me!
Ah, beloved, in my sorrow
Very patient, I can wait,
Knowing that, or soon or late,
There will dawn a clearer morrow:
When your heart will moan "Alas!
Now I know how true she was;
Now I know how dear she was" —
When the grass grows over me!

Incidentally, her grave remained unmarked until the 1980s, when an organization made up of her admirers raised money for one. The group called themselves "The Ina Coolbrith Circle."

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