Dec. 29, 2008

Song of the Wonderful Surprise

by Kelly Cherry

Start with the fact of space; fill it up
with snow. There will be snow in the sky,
snow on the ground, snow in the mysterious courtyards.
You taste snow's tang, smell snow, feel snow on your face.
If you walk forever, you will not come to a place with no snow,
but one day, looking around, you will find
a green apple hanging from a spray of snow.

"Song of the Wonderful Surprise" by Kelly Cherry, from God's Loud Hand. © Louisiana State University, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1916 that James Joyce published his first novel: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce had tried to write the same story in several forms before. In 1904, he wrote an autobiographical essay, but it was rejected. When he got the rejection letter, he sat down at his kitchen table and sketched out a plan to expand the essay into a novel, and within a year, he had written 900 pages of a book about a character named Stephen Dedalus, entitled Stephen Hero.

Then he left Ireland, started teaching English for almost no money, and was trying to support his family. He found it harder and harder to finish his novel. So he decided to write short stories instead, and he wrote a collection called Dubliners. A publisher in London accepted it, but then the publisher asked him to clean up some of his language. He did that, but then the publisher wanted the subject matter changed, then an entire story removed, and finally Joyce refused.

So Joyce decided to return to his novel. But he didn't like it anymore. He thought it was too conventional. So he started from scratch, and he re-titled it A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Joyce had spent nearly 10 years trying to get his fiction published, and then, in 1913, he received two letters — one from a publisher who wanted to reconsider publishing Dubliners, and a second from Ezra Pound, who was looking for new fiction to publish in a magazine. Dubliners was published in 1914, and Pound published a serial version of A Portrait of the Artist. The complete novel came out on this day in 1916, with its famous first line: "Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo."

The novel ends with Stephen Dedalus as a young man, vowing to leave Ireland and to "forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race."

Today is the anniversary of the massacre at Wounded Knee, which took place in South Dakota in 1890. Twenty-two years earlier, the local tribes had signed a treaty with the United States government that guaranteed them the rights to the land around the Black Hills, which was sacred land.

But in the 1870s, gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and the treaty was broken. People from the Sioux tribe were forced onto a reservation, with a promise of more food and supplies, which never came. Then in 1889, a prophet named Wovoka, from the Paiute tribe in Nevada, had a vision of a ceremony that would renew the earth, return the buffalo, and cause the white men to disappear. This ceremony was called the Ghost Dance. The Ghost Dance scared the white Indian Agents, and they moved in to arrest Chief Sitting Bull, who was killed in the attempt.

The next leader they focused on was Sitting Bull's half-brother, Chief Big Foot. He was leading his people to the Pine Ridge reservation, seeking safety there. But it was winter, 40 degrees below zero, and he contracted pneumonia.

Big Foot was sick, he was flying a white flag, and he was one of the leaders who had actually renounced the Ghost Dance. But the Army didn't make distinctions. They intercepted Big Foot's band and ordered them into the camp on the banks of the Wounded Knee Creek.

The next morning, federal soldiers began confiscating their weapons, and a scuffle broke out between a soldier and an Indian. The federal soldiers opened fire, killing almost 300 men, women, and children, including Big Foot.

One of the survivors was the famous medicine man Black Elk, who told his story to John Neihardt in Black Elk Speaks (1932).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show