Monday, October 19, 2015

Poem of the Week 10.19.15

I am not a poetry person.
Don't get me wrong, it's a lovely art form, and I do like to read and hear it. But write about it? Not so much. First off, good poems are not something I seek - they're something passed along to me. Since no one responded to my Facebook status begging people for poems to look at (what kind of "friends"...) I searched for a poem on my own.
It was a very bad experience! I had no idea where to start, and saw tons of terrible poetry. I needed something I felt comfortable writing at length about, and I was feeling none of it! Then my best friend Anxiety gripped me and forced me to think of all the other great POTW posts and how I wouldn't measure up. I couldn't stop thinking about how bad this was going to be and how I was never going to find piece to write about, and even if I did, I wouldn't be able to write about it well.

So in defeat, I stopped searching.
Then, somehow, I found what I needed, and it was something I already knew.

First Fight. Then Fiddle
By Gwendolyn Brooks

First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string
With feathery sorcery; muzzle the note
With hurting love; the music that they wrote
Bewitch, bewilder. Qualify to sing
Threadwise. Devise no salt, no hempen thing
For the dear instrument to bear. Devote
The bow to silks and honey. Be remote
A while from malice and from murdering.
But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate
In front of you and harmony behind.
Be deaf to music and to beauty blind.
Win war. Rise bloody, maybe not too late
For having first to civilize a space
Wherein to play your violin with grace.

I first came across this Gwendolyn Brooks piece in my African American Literature course during the Spring '14 semester and fell in love despite the fact that it confused me. Over time and much thought, this piece has presented many meanings and has grown to mean a lot to me.

Much of Gwendolyn Brooks' work drew from city life in Chicago and the racial climate of the times, in this case, the 40s (1949), so my Africana professor's interpretation of this piece was that it spoke to the ways a dominating culture can force an oppressed and disenfranchised person to assimilate for upward mobility. There is a racially prejudiced "they" who has written this presumably 'classical' music, a need for qualification, and a backdrop or history of violence that this musician must overcome. The musician must fight first, civilize themselves through learning up to European standards - then and only then will they have a space to fiddle.

I accepted that analysis with a flowing pen to my open notebook. Then I got home and thought to myself "something is missing". With such an emphasis on violence (*ahem* violins), why wasn't it a current, physical violence the musician has experienced? Brooks has other poems, such as "Kitchenette Building" and "Children of the Poor" which detail living with hardships in Chicago, so I began to interpret this violence as a present obstacle. The lines "Be remote/A while from malice and from murdering./But first to arms, to armor. Carry hate/In front of you and harmony behind." tell me the musician must put on this armor in the face of poverty and violence. The subject's love for music is the only way to escape the distress of their life, but in order to escape they must fight. They must momentarily leave their beloved harmonies and beauty behind to battle the world around them, to carry a facade of hate in protection of their artistic self. Then and only then they have a space to fiddle.

But it can be both of these at the same time, and that's the beauty of it. The words "First fight. Then fiddle." alone can mean so many things; even as I write this I am coming up with interpretations of Brooks' poem I had never thought of before. There's something so vague, yet specific in its execution that causes it to bend and twist and stretch in meaning each time I look at it.
Still, I always find myself relating to it, every time because at its base, at the simplest level of understanding it, "First Fight Then Fiddle" is about an artist struggling to overcome obstacles that stand in the way of artistic expression.

That's something that can apply to many of my struggles - I have just won one of my battles for expression by completing this post.

- Renee

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