Gwendolyn Brooks' "First fight. Then Fiddle." initially seems to argue for the necessity of brutal war in order to create a space for the pursuit of beautiful art. The poem is more complex, however, because it also implies both that war cannot protect art and that art should not justify war. Yet if Brooks seems, paradoxically, to argue against art within a work of art, she does so in order create an artwork that by its very recognition of art's costs would justify itself.
Brooks initially seems to argue for the necessity of war in order to create a safe space for artistic creation. She suggests this idea quite forcefully in the paired short sentences that open the poem: "First fight. Then fiddle." One must fight before fiddling for two reasons. First, playing the violin would be a foolish distraction if an enemy were threatening one's safety; it would be, as the phrase goes, "fiddling while Rome burns." Second, fighting the war first would prepare a safe and prosperous place where one could reasonably pursue the pleasures of music. One has to "civilize a space / Wherein to play your violin with grace." It should be noted further that while Brooks writes about securing a "civilized" place to play the violin, she seems clearly to be using this playing as an image for art in general, as her more expansive references to "beauty" or "harmony" suggest.
Nonetheless, much that Brooks writes about the necessity to fight before fiddling indicates the she does not support this idea, at least not fully. For example, Brooks describes making beautiful music as being "remote / A while" from "malice and murdering." In addition to the negative way Brooks describes war in this line, ...
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...ultural prestige of violin playing. Indeed, as an emblem of Western civility (one thinks of Renaissance sonnets), the sonnet might be involved in the very justification of the destruction of other less "civilized" peoples that the poem condemns.
One might wonder why Brooks produces poetry, especially the sonnet, if she also condemns it. I would suggest that by critically reckoning the costs of sonnet-making Brooks brings to her poetry a self-awareness that might justify it after all. She creates a poetry that, like the violin playing she invokes, sounds with "hurting love." This "hurting love" reminds us of those who may have been hurt in the name of the love for poetry. But in giving recognition to that hurt, it also fulfills a promise of poetry: to be more than a superficial social "grace," to teach us something we first did not, or did not wish to, see.
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