Tonight’s the Chinese New Years Parade here in San Francisco. It’s an extravaganza by any measure. There’ll be more than 100 entrants, including illuminated floats, marching bands, lion dancers backed by pounding drums and gongs, the trimmed glockenspiels and elaborate costumes of the St. Mary’s Girls Drum and Bell Corps, and oh yes about a quarter-million spectators, including about two thousand adventurers who take part in Jayson Wechter’s beautifully conceived, annually produced Treasure Hunt that features clues of wordsmithery and literary allusions to matters such as Kerouac’s prose and Shakespearean iambic pentameter.
And then there’s the parade’s finale, a barn-burner of an ending, which usually comes sometime after 8:00 p.m.: a huge lit-to-the-hilt dragon, hoisted and carried by about forty people, a dragon that snakes up and down the streets to cheers and firecrackers galore. Here’s how the chamber of commerce people fairly accurately describe it:
The Golden Dragon is over 201 feet long and is always featured at the end of the parade as the grand finale and will be accompanied by over 600,000 firecrackers!The great poetic meditation on this magnificent parade-ending tradition is Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “The Great Chinese Dragon,” first published in his 1961 collection Starting From San Francisco (New Directions). The poem title and author name, in Ferlinghetti’s hand, displayed above, are scanned from the book.
Ferlinghetti’s poem, among other things, imagines that the parade’s dragon is alive and, except for the parade, kept locked in a basement. This is key, because the poem also says the dragon “represents the force and mystery of life” and is “the great earthworm of lucky life,” the “first sign of Spring” that “sees the spiritual everywhere translucent in the material world . . . .”
The beast, in its tremendous potency, is feared in the poem by the “blue citizens on their talking cycles” (that’d be the police). They fear that the dragon will “go careening along . . . chewing up stanchions and signposts and belching forth some strange disintegrating medium which / might melt down the great concrete / walls of America . . . .” In other words, the dragon might upset, majorly, the status quo. So, the authorities have “secretly and securely tied down the very end of his tail” so that it cannot escape.
This anti-establishment take, the championing of the spiritual and intuitive over the materialistic, is of course a Ferlinghetti trademark, and it’s important, dear, and worthy of celebration. Ferlinghetti’s poems are sometimes criticized, and sometimes with good reason, for their on-the-surface approach, which strikes some as too simple or unadventurous. But there’s also, and almost always a poetic point of view that involves sharp cultural, political, and economic jabs and roundhouses thrown at our culture. Ferlinghetti’s first big book, A Coney Island of The Mind (New Directions, 1958), has sold more than a million copies, an astonishing achievement for any poetry title, and even more so, I submit, given that it takes on the “[s]upermarket suburbs” of our land, with its “strung-out citizens / in painted cars,” “bland billboards,” “plastic toiletseats” and the like. These convictions also play out, publically, in the banners that Ferlinghetti and others at the City Lights (including Nancy J. Peters) on the bookstore facade since shortly after 9/11, including (in October 2001) “Dissent Is Not UnAmerican” and “War Will Make Us Safe” (the latter juxtaposed with “Mission Accomplished”). I give it all three cheers.
But let me get back to “The Great Chinese Dragon.” In addition to its anti-establishment underpinnings, what I really like about the poem is how its form – blocks, mostly large and sometimes huge, of unpunctuated wiggly twisty prose – pulse across, down and over the pages, thus perfectly echoing the look and feel of the parade’s dragon. Here are two stanza-graphs (my term) from near the poem’s start, imaged and slightly enlarged from the 1961 edition:
There are a thirteen stanza-graphs similar to these, with one running for almost sixty lines. It’s a great poem, about a great dragon. “The Great Chinese Dragon” was reprinted in San Francisco Poems (City Lights, 2001). To read the poem there, click here, then scroll to page 49 (or scroll to the table of contents and click on the poem’s title). In any event, Kung-Hsi Fa-Ts’ai! Gung Hay Fat Choy!