First Fight. Then Fiddle

by Gwendolyn Brooks

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Last Updated February 6, 2024.

"First Fight. Then Fiddle." by Gwendolyn Brooks first appeared in her 1949 collection, Annie Allen. This work emerged during a period of significant social and cultural change in mid-20th century America, particularly concerning the struggle for civil rights. Brooks was the first Black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and this poem reflects the broader context of racial tension, civil rights movements, and the challenges faced by marginalized communities during this era. 

Against the backdrop of societal upheaval, Brooks' sonnet offers a powerful and thoughtful exploration of the intricate relationship between personal struggle, conflict, and the pursuit of artistic expression. In its few short lines, this work captures the complexities of the human experience during a transformative period in history.

The poem begins with a decisive directive that lends itself to the work's title: "First fight. Then fiddle." This brief statement sets the thematic tone for the entire poem and introduces the idea that engagement with conflict must come before the pursuit of artistic endeavors. This is not a simplistic formula but a contest between opposing forces.

As the poem continues, Brooks employs musical imagery, portraying the instrument as a delicate object with a "slipping string" and the ethereal quality of "feathery sorcery." The instruction to "muzzle the note with hurting love" suggests that the resulting music should be infused with a blend of pain and love to resonate with a complex emotional landscape.

In the second quatrain, the poem's speaker goes on to advise a careful and skillful approach to musical performance. They encourage the artist to sing "threadwise" while avoiding detrimental influences on the instrument, such as "salt" and "hempen thing." The violin must be protected from harmful elements. These details emphasize the importance of a deliberate and thoughtful process in crafting art to underscore the fragility of the creative endeavor.

The third quatrain introduces a shift in focus and tone as the poem transitions from artistic pursuits to the preparation for conflict. The speaker urges the reader to carry hate in front of them and "harmony behind." The speaker does this by employing vivid imagery to stress the necessity of being armed and armored before entering the inevitable battles of life and artistic creation. This shift introduces tension between the worlds of conflict and art, implying that the struggle is a prerequisite for the creative process.

In the poem's final three lines, the speaker encourages the reader to emerge victorious in the conflicts they face, "Win war. Rise bloody." This suggests that overcoming adversity is a crucial step in personal, as well as societal, growth. The lines imply that the struggles one endures are a necessary part of the refinement and cultivation of a space where art and beauty can flourish.

For having first to civilize a space

Wherein to play your violin with grace.

The concluding couplet underscores the transformative power of triumph over challenges. It paves the way for the pursuit of artistic expression with a newfound sense of elegance and beauty.

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