Tourism For Locals: Ina Coolbrith Park Honors S.F. Poet Pioneer

Juan De Anda/SF Weekly
The view from Coolbrith's Park
In the San Francisco poetry world, there's a woman that embodied the sayings of "women rule the world" and "behind every great man is an even greater woman," and that woman was Ina Dona Coolbrith.

Coolbrith was a revolutionary poet who brought local speech and sights into her work and broke barriers for women in the arts. She even inspired and mentored some of the greatest writers in American literature, which include Jack London and Mark Twain.

Coolbrith had many firsts in her lifetime, most notably of which include being the first poet laureate of California (and for that fact, any state in the U.S.), and the first female poet laureate back in 1919.

The San Francisco park dedicated to her namesake is first rate as well, and boasts breathtaking views that reach poetic heights.

Ina Coolbrith was born Josephine Anna Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1841. At the age of 10, she traveled to California in covered wagon with the rest of her family and was the first white child to enter the Golden State through the Beckwourth Pass in 1852, according to the plaque found in her tribute park.

Coolbrith in her early 2os.

In her young adult life, which was during the California Gold Rush, she became friends with other frontier writers to form the Bohemian movement in early West Coast literature: literary golden boy Bret Harte, struggling gay poet and travel writer Charles Warren Stoddard, and the leader of these bohemian bards -- a young Mark Twain who was fleeing his draft for the Civil War, according to a new book about the poet by fellow San Franciscan Ben Tarnoff. It was her alliance with these writers that helped create a new national movement in American lit.

According to Tarnoff, as a group, each character had his or her insecurities and doubts, as young writers do, but they each relied on one other to pioneer a style that was avant-garde, and went against the norms of the the massive East Coast publishing houses and journals at the time. Coolbrith and company documented the bawdy and adventurous personalities and dialects encountered in San Francisco, thus giving the West a realistic but quasi-magical quality portrayal in letters. The literature of these authors was a mixture of high brow and low: It appeased the critics, but it was enjoyable and accessible to the masses.

Her national success and readership didn't transfer into the monetary means of affording a home in San Francisco. She eventually had to move to Oakland because of rising rent prices (this sounds familiar), where she became a librarian. While in Oakland, she inspired Jack London and dancer Isadora Duncan to be avid readers. Here's a portion of a letter London wrote to Coolbrith crediting her as his "literary mother:"

"...I named you 'Noble'. That is what you were to me--noble. That was the feeling I got from you. Oh, yes, I got, also, the feeling of sorrow and suffering, but dominating them, always riding above all, was noble. No woman has so affected me to the extent you did. I was only a little lad. I knew absolutely nothing about you. Yet in all the years that have passed I have met no woman so noble as you."

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Aerial view of the park.
Her park is built into the side of a steep hill and it may not be much in physical park space (like Dolores Park or Golden Gate Park) but this recreational zone more that holds up on its own, like Coolbrith's literary merit.

Sitting on any one of the park's several benches, one gets a clear view of many major landmarks: Alcatraz, Transamerica Pyramid, Chinatown, Pier 39, and even a hint of the Golden Gate Bridge. Stay still and you may see and hear the parrots and hummingbirds. In our last poet related post, we recommended reading poetry but this time we are going to suggest taking it a step further: write a poem. Let San Francisco and California be your inspiration like it was for Coolbrith.

If you need some help getting started here's a sample from Coolbrith's poem "San Francisco: April 18,1906:"

I saw thy barren hills against the skies,

I saw them topped with minaret and spire;

Wall upon wall thy myriad mansions rise,

Fair City of my love and desire.

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In the lower part of the park, look for the Ina Coolbrith memorial bush.

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