“I don’t know what the other Worlds look like, but this dear old, naughty, stubborn, unfortunate, suffering, ravishingly beautiful Earth could satisfy me for several more incarnations … Long may it spin!”
– Ina Coolbrith
In June 1915, at a ceremony held at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, poet and literary figure Ina Coolbrith (1841-1928) was named California’s first poet laureate, and in turn, the first poet laureate of any U.S. state.
During the award presentation held on Expo grounds, California Senator James D. Phelan praised Coolbrith as being the “Sweetest note in California literature.” While accepting the honor, Coolbrith — who donned in a black robe and garland of bright orange poppies, the state flower — made a point to stress how her achievement had come despite all the opportunities she was denied. “By me,” she said, “poetry has been regarded not only as supremest of the arts, but as a divine gift, for the best use of which its recipient should be fitted by education, time, opportunity. None of these have been mine. The ‘higher education’ was not open to my sex in my youth; and in a life of unremitting labor, ‘time and opportunity’ have been denied. So my meager output of verse is the result of odd moments, and only done at all because so wholly a labor of love.”
In her time, Coolbrith wrote the first-ever Commencement Ode for the University of California, became the first woman member and librarian of San Francisco’s Bohemian Club, and president of the Congress of Authors and Journalists, utilizing her salon-life prowess by corresponding with more than 4,000 of the world’s most prestigious writers and journalists. Mills College, then known as Benicia College for Women, crowned her an honorary Master of Arts in 1924. As she neared the end of her life, Coolbrith continued to pour herself into her craft and make her mark on the Bay Area’s artistic community. “All I ask of life is work,” she remarked. “I could have given all my time, or nearly all of it, just to poetry. The rest of my life I intend to put in doing all the work I wanted to do and couldn’t. That’s just as beautiful as retiring is to other people. I’m just settling down to business now.”
Palace of Fine Arts, Lyon Street, San Francisco. Rendered in pen and ink on paper, 53×40 inches.