• Jen Webb

‘There is a phrase that still resonates from childhood. …
“She” (the other woman) is making a spectacle out of herself’
(Mary Russo)


Academics and artists have been talking about carnival-the-concept for about a century now, and still finding fresh things to say. In very broad terms, the concept can be understood as bifurcated between two opposing logics. The first, somewhat nostalgically, celebrates carnival as a space of freedom, and of opposition to the established relations of power (e.g. Bakhtin 1984a). The second, somewhat unsentimentally, identifies carnival as a means for authority to mask, and thereby maintain, the status quo (e.g. Turner 1969).

In what could be criticised as a failure of commitment, I tend to agree with both perspectives. Yes indeed, carnival permits an inversion of the established social structure and its discourses of dominance, and yet can be read as complicit with them. While it accepts that some aspects of human being and human practice are indeed ambivalent, grotesque, and unruly, it tends to buy us off with a day or two of wild fun so that we will be easier to manage during the rest of the year. Victor Turner describes those instances of:

cyclical and calendrical ritual, usually of a collective kind, in which, at certain culturally defined points in the seasonal cycle, groups or categories of persons who habitually occupy low status positions in the social structure are positively enjoined to exercise ritual authority over their superiors; and they, in their turn, must accept with good will their ritual degradation. Such rites may be described as rituals of status reversal. (1969: 167; emphasis in original)

Since nothing changes after the carnival—the rituals of status reversal are very shortlived, and we all return rapidly to our established status positions—it is difficult to reject Turner’s logic. And while, during carnival, participants are able and even encouraged to make spectacles of themselves, what ‘plays at the bay’ doesn’t necessarily ‘stay at the bay’: the spectacles remain in the community narratives, and those who exceed the unspoken limits of permissible grotesquerie may never entirely live it down.

But still, Bakhtin is hard to resist. After all, how better to approach one’s passions than by making a spectacle of oneself; and where better to make a spectacle than in the mode of carnival? When the world is turned upside-down, authority is (albeit temporarily) transformed or transposed, bodies take centre stage, and maybe, just maybe, we can glimpse the possibility of revolution. Because carnival is not about the individual but is always communal, a space for heteroglot utterances, and the bringing together of a community to play in the borderlands between life and art, enact momentary reversals, and celebrate—or even wallow in—the materiality of the embodied self. In a sense, it makes visible the double life of everyone: at once the organised and managed society, and the unregulated inner world and imaginings of an individual.

Beyond the topic of carnival and the inside/outside-ness of that domain, Bakhtin’s translation of polyphony from the domain of music to the domain of creative writing is another great contribution to understandings of creative writing and expression. It is not identical with the heteroglossia. For Bakhtin, language is heteroglot in that ‘it represents the co-existence of socio-ideological contradictions between the present and the past, between differing epochs of the past, between different socio-ideological groups in the present, between tendencies, schools, circles and so forth, all given a bodily form’ (1981: 291). Polyphony similarly speaks to the effect of voices operating in the same space, but it is not so much about groups and ideologies as about individuals: ‘The essence of polyphony lies precisely in the fact that the voices remain independent and, as such, are combined in a unity of a higher order than in homophony’ (Bakhtin 1984b: 21).

This is, perhaps, where prose poetry meets Bakhtin. It is a form that refuses the generic boundaries of prose and of poetry; it uses metaphor and imagery, and equally exploits narrative and character. As such, it quite comfortably adopts the polyphonic measures Bakhtin identifies in Dostoevsky’s poetics. And, in its frequently-deployed mode of play, it also fits neatly into what he identifies in Rabelais’ logic: ‘a game of words’, where ‘It is as if words had been released from the shackles of sense, to enjoy a play period of complete freedom and establish unusual relationships among themselves’ (1984a: 423).

In the triptych poem below, I have attempted to let the words and phrases play, and to incorporate narrative techniques, a little more than I would do in either a lineated poem or a work of prose. I say ‘I have attempted’, but that is a post facto comment. I wrote those paragraphs without thinking about Bakhtin, or about the ‘rules’ of poetry or prose poetry. But given that I am always interested in breaking sentences, juxtaposing images, exposing emotions, exploring the visceral properties of the human being, perhaps I can claim to align this poem with Bakhtin’s logics of language, ideology, carnival, play; with Volosinov’s (Bakhtin’s?)[1] ‘philosophy of language’:

In point of fact, word is a two-sided act. It is determined equally by whose word it is and for whom it is meant. As word, it is precisely the product of the reciprocal relationship between the speaker and listener, addresser and addressee. Each and every word expresses “one” in relation to the “other”. I give myself verbal shape from another’s point of view, ultimately, from the point of view of the community to which I belong. A word is territory shared by both addressor and addressee, by the speaker and his interlocutor. (Volosinov 1973: 86)

A two-sided act. A shared territory. These are phrases that, for me, make poetry carnival, in Bakhtin’s sense; make it political and communal; make it worth writing.


Poem: After the carnival


Bittersweet. The honey on my tongue. The scent of flowers when they’re on the turn. You touched me, after all these years, and with that touch came history, sweet passion, a bitter end. A hail of soft consonants and cracked vowels and you, my longing and my love, stitched into a second-hand scarf.


We play that drinking game. Never have I ever – stolen gloves on a winter day. Never have I ever treated my marriage vows like confetti. Never have I ever: forgotten to pay the bill; neglected the dog when he needed comfort; eaten your last cookie though you’d begged me to leave it for tomorrow. I wake in the mornings wracked with shame, hunting for my phone keys glasses purse. The cat raps at the door, and I do what I’m told. Never have I ever loved you, fucked you, broken every vow for you. Never have I ever let you know.


Most love ends badly. If we had stayed where we first found ourselves: stoned behind the shower block in the caravan park; on the long-distance bus where you commandeered my seat; in the queue at the organic vegetable store; at the conference dinner where you caught my eye and I could have fucked you right thereandthen. When it became later, but not yet too late, we found ourselves in the apartment high above Granville Street with—if one stood on tiptoe—a view of the sea. How sweet you tasted then: every breath straight out of Sappho. If we had stayed there, and avoided all that was to come. How sweet our love. How bitter.



[1] The relationship between Volosinov and Bakhtin, and particularly the extent to which scholars can be confident who authored which work, continues to be debated. Some books, writes E Jayne White, “such as Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (Voloshinov 1973), were said to be written under Bakhtin’s influence even though he never officially claimed authorship himself. This claim continues to be vehemently disputed even today. Regardless, the influence of these ideas is clearly evident in texts Bakhtin authored himself and, perhaps, lived out through his ideas concerning authorship as a dialogic event.” My original copy was attributed to Volosinov, but with a disclaimer on the imprint page about Bakhtin’s possible authorship.


Works cited: 

Works cited

Bakhtin, M 1981 The Dialogic Imagination. Austin, TX: Uniersity of Texas Press

Bakhtin, M 1984a [1965] Rabelais and his world (trans Helene Iswolsky), Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press

Bakhtin, M 1984b Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (ed. and trans. C Emerson), Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press

Russo, M 1995 The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity, New York & London: Routledge (p.53)

Turner, V 1969 The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Volosinov, V N 1973 Marxism and the Philosophy of Language (trans. L Matejka and I R Titunik), New York, NY: Seminar Press

White, E J 2015 ‘Who is Bakhtin?’, International Journal of Early Childhood 47.2 (Special Issue: Bringing Dialogism to Bear in the Early Years): 217–19, doi https://doi.org/10.1007/s13158-015-0144-y