Ina Coolbrith Path Honors California’s First Poet Laureate
Last year, we renamed Bret Harte Lane to memorialize California’s first poet Laureate, Ina Coolbrith. In June, the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project installed a plaque at the bottom of the path to highlight Coolbrith’s contributions to the Bay Area literary scene in the late 19th Century.
The ceremony culminated years of efforts to bring long overdue and richly deserved recognition to Coolbrith, who lived from 1841 to 1928 and is buried with other local luminaries in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.
Coolbrith not only was California’s first Poet Laureate but also was the first in the country. In addition, she was the first librarian at the Oakland Public Library, where she mentored an avid young reader named Jack London. Her first book of poetry, A Perfect Day, and Other Poems, published in 1881, launched her long and distinguished career.
Aleta George, author of Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate,unveiled the plaque, which Berkeley Historical Society also sponsored. While writing her book, George frequently walked the paths of Berkeley. She noticed a cluster of stairways and streets named for noted contemporaries of Coobrith: Harte, Mark Twain, George Sterling, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Joaquin Miller.
In 2015, George mentioned this omission at a public reading of her then newly published book on Coolbrith. Burl Willes from the Berkeley Historical Society organized a committee to rectify the situation.
Charlie Bowen of the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association suggested Bret Harte Lane as the perfect candidate to honor Coolbrith. Number 72 on our Berkeley and Its Pathways Map, this tranquil run of wood-tie steps connects Miller Avenue to Grizzly Peak Blvd. It was one of three paths and a street bearing Harte’s name and was close to the namesakes of the other the writers and poets.
“I'm grateful that the City of Berkeley has recognized that its leaders were remiss years ago when they named these byways for literary men only,” George said. She added that they failed to recognize “that women such as Ina Coolbrith played an important role in the early literary history of California and the West.”
We couldn’t agree more!
(For a sample of her work, read Coolbirth’s poem “California.”)