In spite of – or perhaps because of – our annual celebration of Robert Burns’ birthday, I never really got into poetry. I’m still not sure I really get it, in spite of the wisdom of the years and my developed skill of being able to churn out sonnets within a matter of minutes (quality notwithstanding). But I do know that on occasion I’ll find a poem that will haunt me for years.
I took Advanced Placement English in high school and mostly coasted through it with minimal effort. At that point I was planning to be a high school English teacher and was practicing the associated pretentiousness of loving books that (as my brother would say) only an English teacher would love. It was a brief time in my life when I would have claimed my favorite writers as Faulkner and Steinbeck, with T.S. Eliot holding down the poetry front. Granted, I don’t think I actually understood any of those writers. (Well, okay, Steinbeck’s not too bad.) My English teacher at the time, Mrs. Milkovich, did nothing in particular to inspire any love of the poets. In fact, the only poem I remember her actively teaching was Sylvia Plath’s “The Sow,” mainly because, as she ranted, it’s about a pig, nothing more.
Point: When your baseline experience with poetry is in Scottish dialect with a side order of J. Alfred Prufrock and the occasional scrap of Tennyson and Frost thrown in for good measure, you’re not exactly planting the seeds of a lifelong love of poetry, even when your best friends at the time are trying to spoonfeed you Rossetti and Dickenson and e.e. cummings. (Mixed metaphors! I has them.)
So I’m sitting in my AP Lit exam (one of several, all of which merit their own story; I coasted through Calculus without learning anything, for example). Part of the exam is a poetry analysis. Given that one of the poems used in the practice exams was Plath’s aforementioned literary classic, I was bracing myself for…who knows what, but it wasn’t going to be pretty. So I turned the page to get to the poem.
“First fight. Then fiddle. Ply the slipping string…”
For perhaps the first time in my life, I had found a poem which spoke to me. And, of all places, as an exam question.
I don’t have a clue what I wrote. I don’t remember anything else about that exam. But I do remember rushing my answer and spending the last twenty minutes or so frantically trying to memorize it. Because, of course, we weren’t given the name of the poet or the poem. For all I knew it was written specifically for the purpose of the exam. I don’t think I managed to find it until I was flipping through my Anthology of African American Literature two years later. (Because, of course, this was still in the time period when Yahoo was attempting to categorize the Internet; simple phrase searches weren’t quite up to par yet.) In the intervening time I’ve grown in appreciation of poetry (though admittedly I still prefer structured poems to free verse). Many professors helped foster an appreciation of poetry, if not love. But this one remains my favorite.
And so, without further ado, Stanza 4 of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Children of the Poor.”
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.