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.

The company you keep, and a Polished Gem: Maggie Reed

maggie reed 3 

When I was doing a bit of back-reading for this post I was looking at an earlier one when the guest poet was Martin Reed. The reason for this will quickly become apparent. I introduced that post like this:

“When people ask ‘Why do you write?’ if the answer isn’t ‘Because I’ve got things to say and this is the way I do it…rather than music or painting or sculpture or essays or journalism or graffiti’ then something’s not quite right. If you’re having to make yourself write, then what’s all that about? I think that’s what Keats was getting at with this business of poetry needing come as birds to the tree. Poetry. Not poems or a poem, note. That’s usually going to be difficult, because words don’t just line up and snap to attention. We’re going to draft and redraft and get second opinions, and polish and refine, and we’ll never quite get it right, because if we did, there’d be no point in carrying on. We need to say what’s on our minds. We have to have something to write about, if you like. Ideally we need to be full as an egg and brimming and bursting with things to say. “ 

Julie Mellor has been approaching this idea, on and off for some time in her always-thought-provoking poetry blog. If you don’t follow it already, I highly recommend it. Here’s the link:         

I’ve got a different problem at the moment. I’m busting with ideas I want to articulate, experiences I want to nail down and share, and simultaneously physically/mentally tired; I can’t seem to think clearly, or concentrate in the right way, and it seems the only thing to do is just to let it be. There’s no rational reason to believe that I can’t go away and find it all waiting when I come back. Maybe what’s needed is some peace and quiet inside my head.

Quietness. I think that’s the keyword when I come to think of the work of today’s guest, Maggie Reed . It’s a quality that attaches to another poet whose work I love…Jane Clarke. I’m a noisy, rackety sort of person, and I don’t do that sort of grounded serenity. That quietness. I wish I did, and I’m grateful for those who do. At which point, let’s meet Maggie Reed, originally from Cumbria who now lives in West Malvern where she writes poetry and short stories. She graduated from Lancaster University in 2015 with a merit in an MA in Creative Writing and in 2017 achieved a Post-Graduate Diploma in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at the Metanoia Institute, London.

In 2016 Maggie had three poems published in the North magazine and won third prize in the Settle Sessions Poetry Competition. In 2017 she had another poem published in the North and self-published her first pamphlet ‘Life Lines’. In August 2018 another two poems are due to be published in the North. Previously, in 2011 she won a merit in the Nottingham Open Competition.

Before taking herself seriously with her creative writing in the year 2000, after attending an Adult Ed evening class, Maggie worked in Further Education in Cumbria, Lancashire and Central London, with a focus on teaching and supporting adults with learning difficulties and disabilities. Prior to teaching, she ran her own sign-writing business in the Lake District, painting signs for hotels, pubs, shops and cafes, whilst also working part-time in a factory packing dried food products, driving a van for Securicor parcel delivery as well as assisting in care homes for the elderly.

Maggie enjoys the beautiful British countryside and loves walking in the Lake District as well as discovering the wonderful landscape surrounding her new home in Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Gloucestershire. Much of her writing reflects her life experiences and the people and places that matter most to her.

She met and married her soulmate, Martin Reed last year, after meeting him at Whitby on one the Poetry Business writing residential courses – life right now couldn’t be better!”

So now you see why I was re-reading that post from a couple of years ago about Martin Reed. Essentially, this is a first: a guest poet who met, on a Poetry Business Writing Week in Whitby, another guest poet who I met on a Writing Week in Spain, tutored by Ann Sansom of…the Poetry Business. Which has a nice sort of synergy, and makes me very happy. As do the poems she’s sent me to share.

maggie reed 2

John Arnold


First week in my new job,

lesson observation still on my mind,

he came in the office to suss me out

with words like Silver Book, Ofsted.


You’re not one to rock the boat then.

He knew as soon as I smiled

he’d get at least one coffee from me.

He preferred the company of women,


wolves, some of them, circling on him

as he sniffed around the smoking room.

Had a lad in a headlock this morning.

No one throws tools in my shed.


His shed, the engineering block:

metal vices, cold radiators, stacks of scaffolding.

Lunchtimes in the pub rather than

filling forms, meeting deadlines.


Kids loved him. He could teach them

to fix a car, jazz up a bike.

Tell them how to learn best,

on the job.


He sat in our staff room

flashing his white bushy eyebrows,

his failed career at BAE Systems

waving at him across Walney Channel.


I heard and read this for the first time as a draft in a critiquing workshop. Sometimes a poem just speaks direct to a specific experience.In my case it was having to do an Ofsted style inspection in a bleak technical college, observing the ‘teaching’ of a morose individual who despised his students, the job, and probably, himself. John Arnold lifts me above that, because of its humanity, its gentleness. I feel as though the narrator, and John Arnold with his failed career at BAE Systems / waving at him across Walney Channel, are both out of synch with where they find themselves  She should be lining up her lesson-observation checklist sheets; self-evidently, he shouldn’t have

Had a lad in a headlock this morning.

No one throws tools in my shed.

but there’s the mutual sympathy of outsiders who recognise each other in a cold and angular environment. And after all, kids loved him. And what survives of us is love. It’s poem that couldn’t have been easy to write, in the sense that it needs to persuade the reader to suspend a rational criticism of a teacher who assaults students, goes down the pub at lunchtime, and is a ‘failure’. But it does. Quietly.

When you listen to the next poem for the first time, you may think you’re in over-familiar territory. You may be inclined to think : nostalgia. But it has a trick up its sleeve.

 maggie reed 1



A red-brick vicarage in a northern coastal town

near the football club by St Andrew’s Church.

My father, taking me to Roker Park,

asked a policeman to stop the traffic

so we could cross the road.


I remember cold winters, hands over gas rings,

velvet curtains drawn, matching blue carpet,

draughts under the door.

Mrs. Donkin boiling sheets, wooden tongs,

struggles with the mangle, steam,

pegging them out in the back yard,


Do you remember holidays in Saltburn,

staying in Marlborough House

on Emerald Crescent, taking Peter,

our cat, how he never ran away?

Always smiling at the flowers

in the window, eating homemade

chocolate cake for tea;

riding my bike in the garden,

no, it must have been a tricycle,

I was only three.


I remember these things because you told me

from your chair in the nursing home,

eyes searching then holding my own.


I do remember these things, don’t I?

Or was it you?

Or was it me?

maggie reed 4

I like the way (as I read it) the poem invites me to assume the “I” of the narrator who tells me about the vicarage and the policeman, and the old woman doing the washing is the voice of the poet. If it was, then I guess this would just be a piece of nostalgia, which is as interesting to a listener as a stranger’s photograph album. But something happens very quietly in one line which retrospectively made me re-read and re-evaluate:

Do you remember holidays in Saltburn.

Just like that, the poem turns from a soliloquy to a dialogue. Who asks the question? Who’s being asked? Why?  I make an assumption that it’s a daughter (because it’s a woman poet; yup, that simplistic) and I know she’s visiting a parent (a mother, I assume, because in my experience, it usually is) in a care home. But the thing is, that I don’t know whose memory is unreliable, who rode the trike, who owned the cat. And at the end I don’t know whose memory is more unreliable. And I find it hugely moving. It’s quiet and unassertive and it won’t let me be..

One more poem. It reminds me of U A Fanthorpe and a kind of love called maintenance. A poem of love and undramatic happiness. Which is a condition we can all devoutly wish for.



It’s a day in February,

Monday, perhaps Tuesday,

it doesn’t matter.

Birds are on the feeders,

washing-up is still in the sink,

Radio Five Live on too loud.


I’m remembering images from that dream:

the crowd on the staircase

the sketch I made of pillows in sunlight,

how I ordered a sherry at the bar.

I can hear you in the shower

and think of the books you’ve read

on Stalin, Scannell, Country Walks in Worcestershire.


This time five years ago I lay

curled on my mother’s bed,

remembered how she held me,

how she loved the scent of snowdrops.


So thank you, Maggie Reed for the poems, for the quiet, and the smile you’ve put on my face.

I’m not sure about next week’s post. I have a guest waiting patiently in the wings, but on Friday I’m delighted to say I’ll be driving up to Kendall to read with my hero Kim Moore at the Brewery Poets; on Saturday, I have promises to keep, and though I’ll certainly be knackered, I mean to be at the Poetry Business in Sheffield for a day’s writing. And on Sunday I’m off to the prize-giving for the Red Shed poetry competition, and listening to all the winning poems as well as seeing Maria Isakova Bennett who judged it. So the Sunday post may be delayed.

In the meantime I’ll be trying to set up some launch events for my new pamphlet. Did I not mention that? Perhaps I can keep quiet sometimes. It’ll be out in June. I’ll tell you more about it later. Quietly. Well, fairly quietly.


Advice to a Traveller 723













Where all the ladders start (3)… borrowing voices


I was planning to celebrate another poet’s work today; indeed, I meant to write a review, but I’m distracted and excited by the fact that I’m off to read at Ó Bhéal’s in Cork tomorrow, wondering what the weather will do, praying this incipient cold will stay incipient till I get my reading done…in a word, nervous.

So I’ll post something already half-written, which is probably the last of this mini-sequence about where poems seem to come from, and what persuades them to turn up. I’m conscious that Julie Mellor is doing a similar thing on her blog, and I’m reading it with real interest. Because while my posts are essentially about ‘what poems are about’ hers are about how they might be generated through structured playing with language. They’re not alternative ways of thinking about writing or approaching it. They sit happily  side by side; they’re neither exclusive nor exhaustive…go and see what she’s up to. If you have time, come back and see the rest of this. Here we go.

dummy 4

You may or may not remember this. Michael Parkinson was reputedly incandescent afterwards and swore that ‘that **** will never work again’. What’s definite is that Rod Hull built a career out of flustering, embarrassing and attacking people by proxy. It wasn’t Rod Hull being offensive and anti-social; it was Emu, the archetypal imaginary friend who stole the cakes, dropped the dishes, tracked mud in the kitchen. An alter ego absolves you of responsibility; wearing a mask allows you to say things you wouldn’t normally dream of saying for fear of reprisal. It can also let you say things which aren’t offensive to others but which you feel afraid to confront; it frees you to speak your own uncomfortable truths. I supposes it reaches its apotheosis in drama .. especially, for me, in Shakespeare who can inhabit the characters of those like Edmund or Iago who give you access to dark places. Maskwearing, ventriloquial poetry, dramatic monologue. It doesn’t have to be dark, of course. You can choose your personae. I’m thinking of a recent guest on the cobweb, Sue Vickerman, whose alter ego,  Suki the Life Model, has a whole collection under her belt. T S Eliot borrowed Prufrock and Tiresias. Your persona can be anything you choose, benign, cuddly, sinister,amoral.

What’s certain is that, whether you like it or not,  they’ll not just give you access to imagined different ways of thinking, but also reveal yourself to yourself in ways that can surprise you. What I do know is that, for me, trying on the personalities and voices of real and imagined characters..painters, angels, gods, Lucifer (three times), and so on…is liberating. Trying the voices of women characters is also challengingly educative. I’ve managed to one poem that an exclusively female group believed was written by a women. When it works, you know you’re getting somewhere.

Two years ago I was on a residential course toured by Kim Moore and Steve Ely.  Part of what Steve asked us to do was to try on ‘transgressive voices’, and he gave us unnerving examples of personalities we could try exploring. Like the prophet Samuel. Tyndale’s translation of the Old Testament softens no edges, if you want to contemplate Samuel’s hewing Hagag to bloody bits in front of the assembled tribes. Not an easy man to like, Samuel. Anyway, having being softened up, we were invited to choose our own villain/anti-hero. Anyone. Later on I tried out Myra Hindley and Harold Shipman, but the first to come to mind was Richard the Third, of whom the goodmen of York recorded on hearing the news of Richard’s death at Bosworth :

        this day was our good King Richard most greviously murdered and slain.

Here’s the first step…the notes I made, listening to Steve

Richard 2

It’s pretty obvious where my sympathies tend to lie…with the subversive, the Mephistophelian; the ones who in general are good with words, and have a dark humour. I’ve picked this example, because we didn’t go from the prompt direct to the draft. There was a gap of time..I can’t remember how long, but certainly a coffee break..and then an intensive bit of work producing this

richard 1

I was intrigued when I went back to the notebook to see that though I was sure I wanted to try on Richard’s voice, I didn’t know where to start.What was the pivot, the core moment. Maybe something had percolated from that musing about Browning’s Duke. If someone’s talking they need to be somewhere and somewhen, and they need a reason to be talking. Who are they talking to? And I suddenly thought that this would be before his last battle, that everyone would have abandoned him except the boy who might have brought him food and who would be too afraid to run away with the others. And I thought that Richard has every right to be distracted and autocratic, but it turns out that my Richard is the one I learned from Josephine Tey’s The daughter of time..that lovely revisionist history that starts from the portrait of Richard that shows an intelligent and sensitive man. My Richard understands fear imaginatively, and he knows this boy is frightened. He might be abrupt, offhand, gruff, but he knows this boy has stayed with him, and he’s both concerned and grateful. At which point, of course, I should learn something of my own tendency to be sentimental. But I’m just happy to have found a place where Richard can convincingly stand. I’m also happy to find that he has a Yorkshire accent that I can use to displace the Lawrence Olivier stuff even while I plunder what I remember from his longer speeches. It’s got no shape yet, but it’s got the sense of things happening. It’ll do, for now. And so it sat for a couple of weeks, and then I tried it on screen, tinkered with it, took stuff out, put stuff in, worked on the blank verse, took stuff out. What surprised me was the end. I never expected that. I just know I like reading it out. Here’s the finished thing.

Richard before Bosworth


Boy. There’s no need for you to stay. I can fettle

all this gear. The rest have all fucked off.

Go if you’ve a mind. There’s no one’ll blame you.

I shan’t. The priest made his excuses. The ingrate

greasy sod. But I tell you this. By God,

I stand here your rightful and anointed king.

Blessed by three suns rising in the smoking frost

the day that Edward died and the Lord did grant

to us the field. Bustle then. Make yourself useful.

Buckle on this shoulder brace. Pull this strap tight.

Don’t look surprised. What did you expect?

A hump like a fucking minotaur? One wasted

leg, a lurching gait; not quite the monster, am I?

Never killed a man I wasn’t looking in the eye.

That bastard Richmond and his traitor’s lies…

bottled spider that bitch Margaret calls me.

Listen. Your age I was riding chargers.

Those slick-tongued pretty boys. I’ll tell you what.

I’ll not burn in hell for that fat whoreson, Clarence.

Drowned in a butt of malmsey? The fuck he did.

Drank himself to death, god rot him. I had

their women? Course I did. And so would you.

The Lady Anne? O yes. Spat  right in my face.

She did. I gave it time. Forget that tale

About me and her husband’s coffin.

I waited for a day or two. Don’t look like that.

A sweet armful, Anne. Said I made her laugh.

More ways than one to skin a cat. Do I see ghosts?

Round every corner, boy. Kill enough, and so will you.

Don’t think I lose a fucking minute’s sleep.

All my family butchered. I can’t smell blood these days.

Right. You’ve done a grand job with these greaves.

Light a candle for me if I don’t come back.

Get yourself to York and light it there.

Give me my sword. By God’s grace I am

England’s king. So. Let us go to it. Pray for me.


[from Much Possessed. smith|doorstop 2016]



See you next week…with a proper poet.