Breaking the rules…harder than it looks


In March 2018 I was at a poetry course in Garsdale Head , on a day with snow, much like today, and the course tutor, Kim Moore, finished a workshop session asking us to respond (if we could ) to the work of Daniil Kharms.

Kharms was a  Russian Absurdist, Surrealist, and under Stalin, decidedly antisocial

23 August 1941 at the beginning of the seige of Leningrad, Kharms was arrested for spreading “libellous and defeatist mood”. 

To avoid execution, Kharms simulated insanity; the military tribunal ordered him to be kept in the psychiatric ward of the ‘Kresty’ prison due to the severity of the crime. Daniil Kharms died of starvation 2 February 1942 during the siege ,

His wife was informed that he was deported to Novosibirsk. Only on 25 July 1960, at the request of Kharms’ sister, E.I. Gritsina, Prosecutor General’s Office found him not guilty and he was exonerated.

His “adult” works were not published during his lifetime with the sole exception of two early poems. His notebooks were saved from destruction in the war by loyal friends and hidden until the 1960s, when his children’s writing became widely published and scholars began the job of recovering his manuscripts and publishing them in the west and in samizdat.

His reputation in the 20th century in Russia was largely based on his popular work for children. His other writings (a vast assortment of stories, miniatures, plays, poems, and pseudo-scientific, philosophical investigations) were virtually unknown until the 1970s, and not published officially in Russia until glasnost

His manuscripts were preserved by his sister and, most notably, by his friend Yakov Druskin, a notable music theorist and amateur theologist and philosopher, who dragged a suitcase full of Kharms’s and Vvedensky’s writings out of Kharms’s apartment during the blockade of Leningrad and kept it hidden throughout difficult times.

In Russia, Kharms’ works were widely published only from the late 1980s.

Kharms’ world is unpredictable and disordered; characters repeat the same actions many times in succession or otherwise behave irrationally; linear stories start to develop but are interrupted in midstream by inexplicable catastrophes that send them in completely different directions.

Here’s a taste of his work that Kim Moore offered us.

The Plummeting Old Women

A certain old woman, out of excessive curiosity, fell out of a window, plummeted to the ground, and was smashed to pieces.
Another old woman leaned out of the window and began looking at the remains of the first one, but she also, out of excessive curiosity, fell out of the window, plummeted to the ground and was smashed to pieces.
Then a third old woman plummeted from the window, then a fourth, then a fifth.
By the time a sixth old woman had plummeted down, I was fed up
watching them, and went off to Mal’tseviskiy Market where, it was said, a knitted shawl had been given to a certain blind man.

The red haired man

What do you make of this world? Equally, how did he make it? Just how does he break the rukes? Because like all rule-breakers, he’s rule-governed, isn’t he? I just can’t figure out how. On the other hand, it gets in your head, and sticks. These are moments that draw you in.

I’ve been intrigued of late by the increased incidence in magazines, and also in workshops, of prosepoems (which is sometimes indistinguishable from flash fiction), and also the business of playing with white space, breaking up lines, making apparently abitrary line-breaks. I’m happy to accept that rules are there to be tested and stretched and broken, if only to see ‘what happens’, though less happy to see an accompanying tendency to view regularity, orderliness, evident craft and form as a bit passé. I guess my ‘rule’ is simply to ask: does it work? I’m spectacularly conscious that at the moment a lot of what I’m trying to write doesn’t work. I didn’t set out to do it, but a lot of what I write has ditched the word play, the allusiveness, the obvious rhythms and the imagery that I used to enjoy. It’s gone more reflective/introspective/personal/conversational but that’s a lot harder to do than the complicated stuff. It always was.

Whatever. I’m a regular reader of Julie Mellor’s poetry blog, and also of Anthony Wilson’s latest Life-saving lines after his welcome return to blogging. I learn a lot from their willingness to share their struggles to find new directions and forms, whether it’s haiku or finding a language that will share the experience of depression. It’s humbling.

So let me use my struggles to get my head round the way Kharms’ anti-narrative work as illustrative. Here are the three that I wrote, very fast, in Garsdale

Three tales to little purpose


There was poor forester who had three children. 

He sent them into the world to seek their fortune.

In turn each of them met a wise woman at a crossroad,

The woman asked each of them for bread and they threw stones at her.

One was pursued by dogs and got lost.

One fell into a river and was swept away. Maybe he drowned

One would have married a king but no longer knew the right words.


There was a remarkably clever cat.

He was so clever that people came to him for advice.

He knew, they said, what to do when a crop failed,

or a chimney would not draw or a baby was fevered.

Some said he should be made headman of the village.

Another cat came to the village.

Shortly after, I left the village. 

I don’t know what happened after that.


In the time of hunger a man and his wife found in the forest an iron porridge pot.

All that was needed was to ask for food and it was full. They took it to their cottage.

Afraid that folk would hear of it and take it from them they shut themselves in.

Afraid that folk would know they were there, they dowsed the fire.

Afraid that folk would smell the porridge, they never asked for any. They starved to death.

One day folk broke in the cottage and found them. 

They set fire to the cottage, thinking it cursed.The pot broke in the heat .

The time of hunger was a hundred years. Everyone died.


I’m on record as saying that as a writer I can’t invent…which is obviously something Kharms can. He invents people and situations, but somehow deprives them of his imaginative engagement, and, I think, narrative curiosity. Somehow he’s able to suspend it/them in the way you can in a dream. Me, I fall back on the folk tale formulae and try to subvert them, but morality (or the urge to find a moral meaning in people’s actions) simply comes in and refuses to leave. It’s not easy, breaking rules in a way that works.

On the other hand, playing around, trying to find out what Kharms was up to, and whether you can use it, might lead you to do things you didn’t expect. Which what I think happened with another workshop task. This one was simply introduced with the invitation to write about other people’s dreams. The rule of three is obviously stronger than any effort I might make to override it.

Other people’s dreams


One dreamed he saw a ladder into the heavens,

angels and archangels, seraphim, and every lesser rank

ascending and descending. The light

was astonishing. He dreamed it was numinous.

Effulgent, too, and inaccessible. Polysyllabic light. 

When he woke he’d forgotten all of it. 


One dreamed that angels spoke to her.

When she woke up, she could still hear them.

They refused to shut up. She told the priest,

who told her she was mistaken. She told another.

And another. They locked her up until

she learned sense. She never got out.


One dreamed he was on a high place and saw,

shining on the plain, a rich and fertile land

of placid rivers, deep and loamy soil,

and cypresses. He dreamed a voice said

this was a land for him, for his kin.

When he woke, he went there with his flocks,

his family. The folk who lived there

chased him off with stones and pitchforks.

When he kept coming back they killed him.

His family gathered up the flocks, went back

where they came from.


Well, there we are. Make of this what you will. You may decide I’ve just done it to keep the Cobweb ticking over. You’re probably not far off the truth. However, next week we’ll be back with a Proper Post and a Stellar Guest. I hope you’ll join me.