Poet laureate Coolbrith: Did Berkeley shortchange her?

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Ina Coolbrith circa 1871

2015 marks the centennial of the naming of California’s first poet laureate. In 1915, during the height of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the state named Ina Coolbrith, then 74, to become an ambassador of words.

Aleta George, a journalist and a part-time house manager for Berkeley Rep, has written a new biography of Coolbrith who was known as “the sweetest note in California literature.” George will be talking about her book, Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate, at Books Inc. in Berkeley on Tuesday Sept. 22 at 7 p.m.

Berkeleyside asked George to write about why Berkeley should stake a larger claim to Coolbrith, (1841-1928), who currently is more closely associated with Oakland, where she served as the city’s first public librarian, and San Francisco.

Aleta George: Although Oakland and San Francisco already claim poet Ina Coolbrith as their own, Berkeley has cause to get in on the claiming rights too. Coolbrith contributed to the prestige of the University of California in its early years, and she also lived and died in Berkeley.


Forty years before Coolbrith was named California’s first poet laureate and the nation’s first state laureate (male or female), she wrote two commencement odes for the newly formed University of California.

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Her 1871 ode for five male graduates earned her the distinction of becoming the first woman to write one for any American university. That same year, the university voted to allow the enrollment of female students. A reporter noted that during the ceremony — held in Oakland because the Berkeley campus was still under construction — the women in attendance were not required to take wall seats as they had been in the past, but allowed to sit among the men.

Critic Ambrose Bierce gave Coolbrith’s epic poem “California” a backhanded compliment when he wrote, “There is not another person west of the Rocky Mountains — now that Joaquin Miller is gone away — that could have done better; but they are men, and Ina Coolbrith is a woman.”

Five years later, the university asked Coolbrith to write another commencement ode when two of the women earned bachelor degrees. The ceremony for all 30 graduates (the largest to date) was held on campus in the outdoor grove because there wasn’t a hall large enough to accommodate the expected 2,000 guests who brought picnics. “The country is fresh and beautiful… [and] all days are pleasant at Berkeley,” wrote the Oakland Transcript about the event.

In the 1920s, Coolbrith lived in three different houses in Berkeley, and died here on Leap Day, February 29, 1928, ten days before her eighty-seventh birthday. Her memorial service was held at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church where hundreds of mourners heard UC professor Lionel Stevenson read “Beside the Dead,” a poem that Coolbrith had written 50 years earlier.


You won’t find recognition of Coolbrith in Berkeley — not anymore. What you will find is a cluster of streets and stairways in the Berkeley hills named after her famous male colleagues. In 1866, the College of California (the predecessor of the University of California) decreed that Berkeley streets running north and south should be named after men of science, and the ways running east and west, after men of letters. As a result, there is a constellation of streets, stairways, and paths between Euclid Avenue and Grizzly Peak Boulevard that immortalize Bret Harte, William Keith, George Sterling, Joaquin Miller, Charles Keeler, Charles Warren Stoddard, John Muir, and Mark Twain.

Coolbrith, a noted woman of letters, doesn’t have a byway named after her, though at one time she did. An undated map obtained by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association shows that Queen’s Road was once called Ina Way. Somewhere along the way she was dethroned.

Ina Coolbrith is buried in the Mountain View Cemetery.

Aleta George will read from her new biography, “Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate,” at Books Inc. in Berkeley on Tuesday, Sept. 22, at 7 p.m. The founder of Books Inc. published California’s first poetry anthology and the “Overland Monthly” magazine, both of which included poems by Ina Coolbrith.

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