Her Letters To Clark Ashton Smith: Ina Donna Coolbrith

THROUGH rifts of cloud the moon’s soft silver slips;
A little rain has fallen with the night,
Which from the emerald under-sky still drips
Where the magnolias open, broad and white.

So near my window I might reach my hand
And touch these milky stars, that to and fro
Wave, odorous. . . . Yet ’twas in another land —

How long ago, my love, how long ago!

Ina Coolbrith, “A Memory”

She was born Josephine (sometimes Josephina) Donna Smith in 1841, the niece of that Joseph Smith who was founder and prophet of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. After her father’s death a few months after she was born, her mother Agnes Moulton Coolbrith became the sixth of Joseph Smith’s wives. After Joseph Smith’s murder in 1844, Agnes fled with her children to California under her maiden name, and hid their past association with the Latter-Day Saints for fear of discrimination.

Ina Coolbrith was a poet from childhood, and published her first poem in 1856. A brief marriage at age 17 saw her the victim of spousal abuse, the death of an infant son, and finally a sensational divorce in 1861. The family moved to San Francisco, where Ina found herself in the leading literary circle, associating with luminaries such as Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, and Charles Warren Stoddard. She was lauded for her poetry, but struggled financially, and in time took a position as the first librarian of the Oakland Public Library, where she mentored a young Jack London. Coolbrith faced discrimination in her career because she was a woman, and eventually was replaced by her own nephew.

In 1906 Coolbrith’s home was destroyed by fire in the great San Francisco earthquake; friends managed to scrape together funds to build her a new house, including Mark Twain, who provided autographed photographs of himself to be sold for that purpose. She continued to gain fame and honors as California’s premier poet, and in 1915 was named California’s poet laureate…the first poet laureate of any American state.

Clark Ashton Smith probably read Coolbrith’s poems in the Overland Monthly, or if not there, was probably introduced to her work by his mentor George Sterling: in 1917 he had offered Smith a copy of the Poems of Charles Warren Stoddard (1917), which Coolbrith had edited (SU 152). Both Smith and Coolbrith appeared in Golden Songs of the Golden State (1917) and Literary California (1918), so they could hardly have missed each other’s work. Coolbrith had apparently heard of Smith, then a teenage prodigy, no later than 1918 (SU 164). They were not apparently in direct correspondence at this time, but through Sterling the young poet was hooked into Lovecraft’s Bohemian literary circle, and through these connections Sterling, Coolbrith, and Smith all benefited from the generosity of philanthropists like Albert M. Bender (SU 247).

It is possible they met during one of Smith’s infrequent trips to visit Sterling and San Francisco, but if so, no record has come to light…and Coolbrith would have been increasingly housebound due to arthritis in the 1920s, though Smith reported second-hand:

[Andrew] Dewing has returned from S.F. He met Sterling and Ina COolbrith during his visit. He describes Miss Coolbrith as being bright and sprightly in defiance of her seventy (or is it eighty?) odd years. He even takes an interest in her free verse, and has her opinion on everything from Bolshevism to Amy Lowell!

Clark Ashton Smith to Samuel Loveman, 20 Apr 1919, Born under Saturn 161

It would have been natural enough for the two California poets to correspond; while they were of two different generations they shared friends and literary interests in common. However, only a single letter has been published; how many other letters there might have been are unknown, though Coolbrith certainly sent at least one to Smith. This letter does, however, give the flavor of the things they discussed:

Dear Miss Coolbrith:

Thank you for your kind letter, which I had meant to acknowledge long before this. Diffidence more than anything else, has restrained me: But I would have written a little sooner, if I had known that you had a birthday in March I was delighted by the account in the San Francisco papers: it is good to know that one true poet, at least, is “not without honour.” Surely you deserve it—and more.

Miss [Mary Eileen] Ahern tells me that you are having difficulty in finding a publisher. Truly, I am fitted to sympathize, since I am engaged in the same elusive and exasperating search. The publication of my last book was due to the generosity of a local printer who, I am afraid, has barely cleared expenses… In your case, surely the difficulty is due to the present day confusion of poetic values—or (one is tempted to say) the almost total lack of them. “Bedlam [is] loose, and the bars are down.” But perhaps there will be a lucid interval, some day.

I am very much on the shelf at present, with a lame foot (a truly Byronic impediment!) but some day I mean to send you a few of the local wild-flowers, if you will accept them.

With thanks for your appreciation, and all best wishes, I am, dear Miss Coolbrith,

Your admirer,

Clark Ashton Smith

Clark Ashton Smith to Ina Coolbrith, 12 Mar 1925, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 73

The letter was almost certainly occasioned by Ina Coolbrith’s birthday on March 10th, which was marked by great festivities and reported on in many papers. Smith had published a collection of poetry titled Ebony and Crystal (1922) through the Auburn Journal (the local newspaper), and prepared a second book titled Sandalwood (1925) to be published later that same year, and neither was particularly profitable. To help make up his bill, Smith worked part-time at the newspaper, providing poems, columns, and editing.

Mary Eileen Ahern was a librarian in Oakland. Coolbrith may have been looking for a publisher for Retrospect: Los Angeles (1925), a large folded broadside containing the poem of the same name, or possibly the collection of her later poems that would become Wings of Sunset (1929), which was published a year after her death in 1928.

Smith was “on the shelf” because of an accident during woodcutting, where he’d dropped a block of wood on his toe and apparently had broken it badly: he reported to Sterling that the injury happened ~13 January 1925, and couldn’t walk into town until the end of June (SU 247-253). The injury impacted Smith’s ability to do outdoor work such as picking fruit, which may have influenced his shift toward fantasy fiction: “The Abominations of Yondo” was written in 1925, and would be published in the Overland Monthly (which Coolbrith had co-edited) in April 1926.

It is a short and a sweet letter, from one California poet to another. While much of Smith’s latter-day fame rests on his weird fiction and fantastic poetry, it is important to remember that he was working within a tradition of California poets and interacting with their literary society—at least, as well as he could from Auburn, which was far from the literary centers of the Golden State. Smith’s admiration for her poetry appears to have been reciprocated: we know, for example, that only a year before her death she held or was present at a reading of Smith’s work:

One can imagine all the women writers gathered together, as the white-haired eighty-six-year-old woman painstakingly pried open a thin volume…perhaps with a dried wildflower between the pages to mark the place…and what would she read, from the young man who had been a friend of her friends, to who she had written and who had written her back?

Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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