First Fight. Then Fiddle

by Gwendolyn Brooks

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The Poem

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Last Updated February 6, 2024.

Gwendolyn Brooks' "First Fight. Then Fiddle." is not a simple hymn to peace or a rallying cry for revolution. It's a sonnet full of tension, where the music of artistic expression grapples with the harsh realities of social injustice. It asks an essential and timeless question: can beauty exist in the face of inequity, and what is the artist's responsibility in such a world?

Symbolism plays a pivotal role in the poem, with the "slipping string" and "feathery sorcery" encapsulating the delicate nature of art. The slipping string, a metaphor for the fragile yet resilient essence of creativity, highlights the complex balance artists must strike between vulnerability and strength. The "feathery sorcery" extends this metaphor to suggest a magical quality in the act of creating. Brooks crafts a vivid image of music and, by extension, all art as a powerful force that is capable of transcending the harsh realities of life.

The poem quickly disrupts any romanticized notions of the artist as a detached observer. The third quatrain plunges readers into the stark realities of conflict. The speaker urges warriors to embrace "hate" and become "deaf to music and to beauty blind." This jarring shift in tone from the opening two quatrains is a deliberate provocation. It forces the reader to confront the uncomfortable truth that engagement with injustice isn't always beautiful or pleasing. It's messy, raw, and often demands a temporary sacrifice of aesthetic pursuits in the face of immediate action.

Yet, the poem doesn't glorify violence or endorse a complete rejection of the arts. The language retains a softness amid its harsh tone, where the "music that they wrote" is described with terms like "bewitch, bewilder" to hint at the power of art to subtly influence and motivate in the fight for justice. The violinist is a figure of "hurting love," wielding melodies that can both wound and heal.

However, the true reward of artistic expression lies not in the heat of battle but in the aftermath. The image of the warrior rising "bloody, maybe not too late" is full of ambiguity. Is it a celebration of necessary struggle or a lament for the scars it leaves on society and the artist's soul? The poem doesn't offer easy answers. Instead, it leaves readers contemplating the cost of creating beauty in a world of injustice.

This poem is a sonnet that adheres to a structured meter and rhyme scheme, contributing to its musicality and rhythmic flow. The poem follows iambic pentameter, a ten-syllable line alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. This provides a steady and controlled cadence. The rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA CDDC EE, typical of a 14-line Shakespearean sonnet. This consistent rhyme scheme creates a sense of symmetry, enhancing the poem's formal elegance. 

Brooks' skillful use of language within this formal structure contributes to the poem's thematic complexity. It demonstrates her mastery in conveying meaning and crafting a sonnet that is both sonically pleasing and structurally sophisticated. The rhythmic quality of the poem, combined with its disciplined meter and rhyme, reinforces the thematic tension between conflict and art, providing a harmonious backdrop to the exploration of its profound ideas.

Furthermore, the selection of the sonnet, a traditionally European poetic form, serves as a deliberate and meaningful statement within the context of the poet's identity and the societal backdrop of mid-20th century America. As a Black poet during a period marked by racial and social upheaval, Brooks strategically engages with the Western literary tradition by employing a form historically associated with European themes. This deliberate choice can be interpreted as a subtle act of asserting her presence within a literary canon that often excludes voices from marginalized communities. 

The juxtaposition of a form linked to romantic ideals against the harsh realities of conflict and struggle highlights the complexity of her message. It makes the sonnet a tool for literary activism — asserting her identity, challenging norms, and contributing to a broader dialogue about race, identity, and artistic expression. In doing so, Brooks reshapes and redefines the traditions to accommodate diverse voices and experiences, marking her indelible contribution to the evolving landscape of American poetry.

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