Marianne Morris's "Mother Poems" and a Poetry of Live Address

I am so pleased to offer you a selection of work by UK poet Marianne Morris. In addition to a selection of poems, Morris has graciously shared with us a prose piece contextualizing the poems and their relation to performance and politics via live address and human interaction. Enjoy!

Marianne Morris started Bad Press in 2003, which has since published over ten, mostly female, authors, in the UK and North America.  She has written over ten chapbooks; her first full collection, The On All Said Things Moratorium, was published in 2013 by Enitharmon Press.  She holds a PhD in performance writing from University College Falmouth, and a BA in English from Cambridge University; St. John’s College awarded her the Harper-Wood Studentship for Creative Writing in 2008. She is currently studying Oriental Medicine and herbalism in California.

by Marianne Morris

The sequence called ‘Mother Poems’ is the result of a long process of my efforts to develop a poetry of live address: it evolved out of editing original drafts of a poem variously called ‘The Great Sublimation’, ‘The Unsublimation’, and ‘Greek With Me’. These titles evolved in the aftermath and anticipation of ten separate public readings over two years.[1]

The act of public reading provided assistance in the composition and editing of these poems because it focused my attention on the idea that the poems were being heard, and therefore belonging in the realm of human interactions. After reading an early draft in New York, for example, I significantly cut a long section referring to Hegel’s writings, hearing or understanding in their live echo as I read, a disconnection between the obscure references and the audience’s immediate ability to grasp their origins.

‘The Great Sublimation’, the first in the series, relies on a framework of references to Ancient Greece to maintain its focus, but is also marked by the extensive use of quotations from Hannah Arendt, G.W.F. Hegel, John Keats, Jacques Lacan, J.H. Prynne, and Harvey Yunis. This focus on quoted material links back to Plato’s conception of writing as unable to articulate its needs for itself, always need[ing] its father to help it’, and its implied need for legitimacy.[2] Reference has also been associated with male tendencies in conversational speech, which ‘men tend to orientate to its referential function’:

 Men’s reasons for talking often focus on the content of the talk or its outcome, rather than on how it affects the feelings of others. It is women who rather emphasise this aspect of talk.[3]

 I employed reference material in ‘Mother Poems’ in order to subject it to poetic language. I cut the quotes up, changed them, and added my own words. They are intended to function in these poems more as raw materials than as indicators of outside knowledge. In addition to the quotes already mentioned, in the final poem, I also included fragments of the initial notes that I made during composition. The earliest drafts of ‘The Great Sublimation’ were heavily footnoted, and part of the editing process involved amalgamating the text of the poem with the text of these notes. This helped to resolve the conflicts implied by the two different registers of discourse, and also to contain and streamline the poem, reasoning that the presence of footnotes would not only interrupt the flow of poetic discourse, but also to imply that there was thinking about the poem’s content that needed to be done separately in order for it to convey its full meaning.

The word feminism has a medical root. In 1875, it denoted ‘[t]he appearance of female secondary sexual characteristics in a male individual; feminization’ (OED). This root is particularly interesting with regard to the semi-permeable boundaries of polis and oikos, because in the early medical sense, feminisation was the appearance of female characteristics in places where they were not expected. In accordance with a feminist poetics, then, I wanted to write a poem through the idea of the fixed, male, despotic space of polis being confronted by some of the female qualities of oikos – permission, fulfillment, intimacy. I wanted to see what would happen if Ancient Greek polis had a mother.

I came to this conclusion through various public readings of drafts of poems that ended up as ‘Mother Poems’. I started off introducing the early drafts at readings by explaining that I had some grievances with Ancient Greece. In a January 2012 reading in New York, I described the drafts as the result of my thinking about Ancient Greece and ‘trying to fight with it in my poetry’.[4] This description was a modification of my earlier attempt to describe the poems in the introduction to a December 2011 reading in Berkeley, CA. I discussed this earlier introduction in an interview with the California-based poet, David Brazil:

DB: In your reading in Berkeley in 2011 you said, “Fuck the ancient Greeks.”  Were you thinking of any ancient Greeks in particular?  Would you rather root for the Persians?  How about the modern Greeks?  How about petrol bombs against astunomoi, February 2012?

MM: Oh dear, how rude. I am so not punk. I am actually pretty fond of a number of Ancient Greeks, Plato and Sappho among them. I think maybe it’s just that the Ancient Greek ideal city-state of polis would benefit from a mother. I have been working on a poem for a couple of years now that attempts to address the faulty elitism of polis, the city space which excludes everyone except the male heads of households, but which nonetheless still retains important ideas for contemporary thinking about political engagement (for example, in its conceiving of speaking and acting as equally valuable). And I’m about to contradict myself, but I also get frustrated when I see so much Ancient Greek thought sneaking into modern theory—Jacques Rancière I am looking at you—at least partly because one of Plato’s best ideas in the Phaedrus is that writing is just a little kid who needs its daddy to hold its hand because it is immutable and doesn’t know how to speak to anyone, and the reiteration of Ancient Greek thought in the present time seems like a perfect metaphor for this hand-holding. I have many imaginings about a poetry of live address that can and does know how to speak and who to speak to.[5]

These comments are tied to Plato’s description of writing in the Phaedrus, where he tries to discredit it as being immutable, confined to a rigid space, unable to speak to anyone. The paragraph that particularly bothered me was this:

The offspring of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.[6]

This seems to me the crux of the contradictions inherent in the notion of a ‘political’ writing, or perhaps simply the anachronism of it. Political space is, etymologically, womanless, and when it translates into contemporary time, it carries that inherently masculine structure with it, in patriarchal traditions of thought. Plato prescribes here for writing a patrilineal doom: it is doomed not only because the written word amounts to a helpless babbling Echo, but that its only hope is in its being helped along by its masculine elder, who provides through his very presence a form of legitimacy. Jacques Rancière’s recycling of this idea serves only to reinforce this perception of the written word, both as helpless, and requiring the help of its father. Rancière is speaking generally from ‘the Platonic point of view’ when he paraphrases this idea, without directly acknowledging its source:

By stealing away to wander aimlessly without knowing who to speak to or who not to speak to, writing destroys every legitimate foundation for the circulation of words, for the relationship between the effects of language and the positions of bodies in shared space.[7]

Rancière recycles the root of the idea and builds on it, crucially altering the clause about illegitimacy to posit writing itself as the root destroyer of ‘every legitimate foundation’ for its own circulation. Most peculiarly, he also brings in ‘the position of bodies in shared space’ to support his argument: surely bodies in space are the correct setting for reclaiming the legitimacy of language, where ideas remain possible, unfixed, and subject to dialogue. Rancière’s manoeuvre here in fact reinforces the anti-political aspect of the written word that Plato finds so oppressive, first by attempting to re-posit a stale idea, and secondly by sourcing this idea from the archive of a fatherly figure, whose very presence ‘protects’ it, and gives it legitimacy. Its legitimacy comes from the safety of repetition; it is (literally) unimaginative, and thereby the antithesis of progressive politics.

For Rancière, therefore, it is no surprise that ‘[p]olitics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it’ (13) – essentially prescribing a permanent re-positing of what is already in existence, a championing of the status quo. His politics consists of the interpretation of events, sealed in by existing actualities, rather than the imagining of the future possible, in which the idea of change is rooted.

Politics here is submitted to a reading of itself as relating to fixed categories of what is visible, what can be quantified, and what does not change. The comments made in the interview with Brazil quoted above aim to challenge this notion. What I particularly like about the exchange is the way that, in re-positing my original aggression back to me and challenging it through confrontation, the aggression necessarily deflates and submits to more careful and articulate examination: a somewhat crude example, perhaps, but therefore perhaps a striking metaphor about the importance of poetry’s having an audience, or of being thought of as having an audience. Not, perhaps, to the extent that a poet is writing for ‘a reader’, but that, particularly in the context of a poetry that is read in public, it is part of a social interaction, an exchange, and will encounter people in different contexts on its way. I do not mean to invoke the category of ‘the reader’ as the building blocks of a market, a mutable category exhibiting a particular taste. This is not ‘the reader’ discussed by Barry and Hampson (paraphrasing Donald Davie):

the general poetry reader will tolerate a degree of surface difficulty, but only so long as the subject matter remains essentially familiar.[8]

 Nor is it the reader Don Paterson describes as seen by ‘the Mainstream’ as ‘equal collaborator in the creation of the poem’, contrasting this with the reader in Postmodern poetry, who ‘is alone’.[9] These allusions to the reader are tied to the idea of poetry as a product, and the idea of the public as its patrons, who in turn expect a particular kind of service. I have come to conceive of the idea of an audience in the sense discussed by Nicholas Bourriaud as ‘relational aesthetics’, which produces

[…] an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space[.][10]


we the massive majority in our bodies are few

as am I from my seat upstairs alone being with you

being with you


The reader, who does not exist, becomes anyone; it becomes the category of people listening, which is unfixed and uncertain. It is predicated on the only things that a person can assume to have in common with any other person, the abstractions that fall under the watch of the category of compassion, and under the motherly qualities of care lacked by ancient polis.





Some of ‘Mother Poems’ became a weird pop opera, which I performed in London at POLYply 11 (June 2011) to a backing track of reggaeton and synth voices.  Some of it went into the final manuscript for DSK, a chapbook printed by Tipped Press in Tokyo in 2012.

 I read the final version of this poem in June 2012 at a reading to mark the launch of the fourth issue of The Paper Nautilus, a magazine devoted to women’s poetry and poetry criticism. I read with four other female poets, all my age or younger than me. In terms of thinking about the relevance of ‘Mother Poems’ to the current sociopoetic landscape, this reading seemed an exemplary event in that the other readers were all young women. In addition, each poet was asked to read the work of another poet in addition to something of their own, which opened up the reading to new voices and new poetries, broadening the dialogue, expanding the sphere of knowledge, and posing a generous model for sharing work.


[1] I first read ‘The Great Sublimation’ in Cambridge, May 6, 2011, and then read subsequent drafts at nine separate poetry readings: POLYply11 and Intercapillary Places in London (June 2011), Hi Zero in Brighton (November 2011), a house reading at Woolsey Heights in Berkeley, CA (December 2011), Segue in New York (January 2012), Lyric & Polis in Falmouth, Cornwall (February 2012), Poets Against Dominque Strauss-Kahn in Cambridge (March 2012), Stichting Perdu in Amsterdam (March 2012), the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol (April 2012), and the Poetry & Revolution conference in London (May 2012).
[2] Plato (1973) Phaedrus & Letters VII and VIII. Translated by W. Hamilton. Middlesex: Penguin, p.56
[3] Holmes, J. (1995) Women, Men and Politeness. London: Longman, p.2
[4] MARIANNE MORRIS, SEGUE READING SERIES, BOWERY POETRY CLUB, JANUARY 7TH, 2012’ [audio] [online] Available at: < http://media.sas.upenn.edu/pennsound/authors/Morris-Marianne/Morris-Marianne_Segue-BPC_1-7-12.mp3> [Accessed September 19, 2012].
[5] Marianne Morris, Iran Documents (Tennessee: Trafficker Press, 2012), pp.44-5.
[6] C.D.C. Reeve, Plato on Love: Lysis, Symposium, Phaedrus, Alcibiades with selections from Republic, Laws. (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing, 2006), p.275.
[7] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible. Translated by G. Rockhill, 2006 (2000). London: Continuum, p.13.
[8] Barry, P & R. Hampson. New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible. Manchester: MUP, 1993), p.4.
[9] Don Paterson & Simic, C., New British Poetry (Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2004) p.xxix.
[10] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Paris: Les presses du reel, 2002), p.14.


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