{pf with p7: whatcha behn up to?}

Turn up the fan, and gather ’round. It’s time for another monthly poetry challenge.

Aphra Behn, 1640-1689, was the foremost female dramatist of her day, as well as a poet and a spy who wrote to make her way in the world – something not possible for many women, and only possible for a White woman who was particularly charming. She was a commercially successful playwright, and in her time, a household name. Most men were equally challenged, titillated, and horrified by her, as she would not stay safely within society’s confines for her gender. Alexander Pope all but called her a whore, but… I mean, Alexander Pope. His picture was in the dictionary next to Uptight. The commentary of uptight old men upon her work was believed as fact until the early 20th century.

For all that she wrote a lot, she herself remains a mystery. One of my favorite poems of hers is from one of her plays called Abdelazar, a revenge romance which characterizes Love as this terrifying alien that feeds upon lovers.

Song from


Love in fantastic triumph sate,
Whilst bleeding hearts around him flowed,
For whom fresh pains he did create,
And strange tyrannic power he showed;
From thy bright eyes he took his fire,
Which round about in sport he hurled;
But ’twas from mine he took desire
Enough t’ undo the amorous world.
From me he took his sighs and tears,
From thee his pride and cruelty;
From me his languishments and fears,
And every killing dart from thee;
Thus thou and I the God have armed,
And set him up a Deity;
But my poor heart alone is harmed,
Whilst thine the victor is, and free.

Despite the archaic wording, the writing is so passionate and bright – and very different from many writers in the 17th century.

In multiple poems, Behn used an ABBACDDCEE rhyme scheme in iambic tetrameter in sometimes ten, and sometimes fourteen lines. Often, but not always, the last was conveyed in iambic pentameter. Our challenge from Kelly this month was to write a poem using this rhyme scheme, with length and topic up to us. It was… not easy. I really dislike changing meter at the end, and because I hated it SO MUCH, I left it that way. (This challenge is meant to be about moving from one’s comfort zones.) I was silently beaming as I read the exchanges from my Sisters about how hard this one was. (Also: EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW IS HARD. This is why we write poetry; we have to keep exercising those creative muscles in any way we can.) I can cheerfully say that none of us is wholly delighted with their poem (what else is new?) but I think we’ve all done a bang-up job of trying: Sara managed a bit of magic about July 6th while Laura carved out a list. Liz jumped in with another slice of summer. Kelly raised the Aphra-as-spy topic, and we’re throwing up our hands with Tricia, who is hosting today, as well as living on the wild side. Andi is wisely laid out in front of the fan. For now, it’s onward with my own difficult bit of verse:

I often use poetry to work through things which are in my head, which is why this poem is… sharp… and dedicated to a certain Querulous Old Man, bless him, and to all who’d never even heard of the Wilder Award, yet still come to weigh in loudly as if called….


To celebrate an ancient lie ~
A “good old days” rife with cliché
You must, beginning, put away
Examination. Justify!
“We can’t just erase history -”
“Smearing her legacy’s a crime.”
“She was a product of her time.”
These arguments are sophistry.
But, “boldly go,” O, Pioneer,
Your destiny is manifest!
Your cause is trending (hastag “blessed”)
But all things change. (Is change your fear?)

Well, history remains the same –
But will you celebrate what should bring shame?

(EDITED: Or, “But will you celebrate its shame?” to keep the tetrameter intact.)

Poetry Friday is hosted by the glorious Miss Rumphius. Head on over to Tricia’s blog for more poetry goodness. And have a great weekend. Stay out of the saltpeter.

12 Replies to “{pf with p7: whatcha behn up to?}”

  1. Querulous Old Man indeed! I’m with Mary Lee, bless him would not be my sentiments.
    In the weeks surrounding the renaming, my social studies methods class was looking at bias in children’s literature. We read Ebony’s article about A Fine Dessert and looked at some past “dust-ups” on Twitter. While a frustrating and discouraging conversation, it was such a teachable moment for me and my students.
    As to your poem, I adore what you’ve done. You’ve summed this up in (dare I say it?) a pithy and elegant manner. Thank you for addressing the topic in this manner. Your poem packs a powerful punch.

    1. @Tricia: I know there are more “dust-ups” to come; we who are the Gatekeepers of Institutions do not like anyone to challenge our interpretation of what those Institutions should be, who they should serve, and why they exist… but I think with coolly articulate people like Ebony at the helm, the conversation will continue. If I get in there, there will just be a lot of spluttering and possibly throwing things, so I just stay quiet… and write angry poetry. 😉

  2. Tanita!
    1) I confess I thought Aphra Behn was a contemporary of like Dorothy Parker, early 20th century. My “sidelong familiarity” has rarely been further off the mark.
    2) I’m delighted to say that I spent just enough time on Twitter this week to understand what you were pissed about
    3) I absolutely love the way you write about Aphra from a modern stance, without belaboring or apologizing or Shatnerizing. You make it seem easy to reframe the way we talk about women and history.
    4) I also like the way you modernize the form and make it work (but a reader does have to know their punctuation and their media culture).
    5) Change is the fear indeed.

    1. @Heidi Mordhorst: Thank you for stopping by!
      Truly, this poem is far too topical as it stands, it wouldn’t make sense to anyone else but those of us Twitter lurkers. I was delighted to be introduced to Aphra Behn when I took a grad school class on 17-18th century female poets. I was surprised there were enough of them to base a whole class on, but there were!

  3. All kinds of perfect. (I snorted at your “bless him”! I would substitute a less polite word for “bless”…)

    I like the edited last line.

    And about that saltpeter…sometimes we need to walk away from it, but maybe sometimes we should (take cover and) throw more matches on it.

  4. I love the one of hers you shared. Feels like the distant ancestor of Breakeven, by the Script (https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/script/breakeven.html). I liked the anger in your poem, which I could apply to so many current situations–though I’m totally ignorant of what actual Twitterstorm you’re referring to. Love the play on Manifest Destiny. And from that and pioneers, I thought maybe it was the Laura Ingalls Wilder award renaming? But not sure. Anyway, I enjoyed reading it and imagined my own set of folks who deserve it.

    1. A short explanation, @laurasalas: The old actor William Shatner went after Ebony Thomas on Twitter because he tweeted about the Wilder Award renaming. She retweeted his tweet, and talked about the similarities of Manifest Destiny as a concept, Wilder’s books talking about there being “no one” in all the prairie, except Indians, who were clearly not people, and, to relate the concept to him, the idea of going into space with the belief that we as humans were superior. It was brilliant, and she’s a big Trekkie, and she was kind even as she informed.

      …and then he reported her to UPenn where she is newly tenured; basically, you’re not allowed to disagree with him. Next, he set a lot of very rude and awful people to bait and insult her. It wasn’t pretty. It was also annoying, because 99% of the people speaking out in public suddenly have a.) no idea who the ALSC is, b.) what it does, c.) what the Wilder Award was for, and d.) read any books awarded it. But, still talking loudly because that’s what one does on social media. The whole thing made me angry.

  5. You had me at the title!!
    And then the argument of the poem itself. Oh, yes please.
    Speaking up, Aphra Behn style!! Hurrah!

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