Luigi Reina

Before achieving truly original results, for a long time poetry in the Calabrian dialect followed the two lines inherited from the Nineteenth Century: the vernacular, even comical, aimed at giving a voice to uncultured speakers, which never posed the question of joining semantic instruments and grammatical systems, and has always remained anchored to the mimetic use of language; and the argumentative, bent on building ideologically a sort of artificial alternative to reality, not infrequently alert to the possibilities of a critical conjugation with the protest.
Quantitatively prevalent have always appeared to be the mimetic stances, leaning heavily on the side of the popular, with less frequent stylistic and thematic tensions in the direction of an imitative recovery of the more widespread Italian tradition.
This is clearly exemplified by the texts of Michele Pane (1876-1953), who had made his debut with a satirical poem, "L'uòminu russu" [The Red Man] (1898). In the mimetic power of the language, kept alive also by a cultural tradition guarded in its primal authenticity, Pane found the instruments to express both the anxiety of uprootedness and the longing of the man thirsting for literature who looked to Pascoli as the poet who was closer, emotionally, to his own world. And the latter provided several correlations with his own verse, to the extent that he made a few translations in the vernacular that showed he was well-disposed towards lyric conventions. The influence of Pascoli on Michele Pane is, nevertheless, a non-reductive element in the characterization of a poetics focusing on domestic and melancholy themes, which do not exhaust the poet's interests. He appears to aim at avoiding the psychologically idyllic posture typical of the poet from Romagna, in favor of a personal approach to social themes with a strong ethical element (Parini), but without utopic temptations. And often dialect is substituted by the common language, even if in somewhat conventional forms which betray various influences of "schools" (Carducci and Padula, above all, particularly consequential in the formal characterization of the texts).
Nevertheless, Pane does not go too far along this line. His emigrant's psychology induces him to dwell very frequently on the reasons behind his longing for the places, the sentiments, the objects he loved. Garibaldi, in the long run, becomes an ever popular hero ("Rapsodia Garibaldina," 1949); and as such destined to become a myth, against profiteers, usurers, Bourbonists, followers of Crispi, braggarts, abettors, thieves, jackals. The controversy takes up a canonical theme of Calabrian literature, not unlike what happens in the passages where the poet breaks into patriotic song, evoking episodes of 1848 and 1860. Calabrian as well is no doubt the paramount source of the erotic tension that runs through one of the American collections (Peccati [Sins], 1916), played between popular motifs and ludic metaphors, whimsical and goliardic.
The political element prevails openly, instead, in the poetry of Pasquale Creazzo (1875-1963). As a consequence, an ideological reading of his work has always been favored. But when it is stripped of adversarial connotations, often resentful, shouted, biased, it reveals an outdated and almost exploitative intent which certainly does not do poetry any good.
The dialect of Creazzo, often harsh, conservative and tendentiously archaic, almost petrified (so that it does not lend itself to the frequent practice of translating Latin odes into vernacular), depends entirely on slang, a consequence of his attempt to remain close to the static rural world, which does not allow other types of values, even when it is forced to deal with the need for integrative lexical loans.
Somewhat more successful are the political stances of Nicola Giunta (1895-1968). But they rarely reach the level of comprehensive meaningfulness, because the observation point, resentful and polemical, is generally urban Reggio Calabria. The definitive switch to dialect took place after W.W.II, after an attempt at mixed languages ("Francesco da Paola," 1936), but it was not enough to free him from a certain late-naturalistic conditioning. Already discovered by Pasolini, Giunta can be considered little more than a provincial follower of D'Annunzio and the crepuscolari, who was nevertheless able to stay away from the widespread imitation of Pascoli in the region, alternating invectives and melancholy in tones at times descriptive and at times sententious.
Social aims can be also found in the dialect poetry of Napoleone Vitale di Bova (Asprumunti, Calabria), and above all in that (Canzuni vecchi e canzuni novi) [Old Songs and New Songs], 1931 of Giovanni De Nava (Reggio C., 1873-1941) who, allured by Mussolini's social program, from a vaguely romantic socialism he embraced Fascism. In an attempt to look for answers to the many existential questions that concerned all humanity, De Nava gave a voice to the poor and derelict, with a rather pessimistic outlook (Who can these children be / without a house, mother, bread and God? / One day they'll be thieves and crooks / that the city itself has raised!) Michele de Marco (Ciardullo) di Perito (1884-1945) opted instead for the facetious and playful sketch, good-naturedly skeptical, and aimed at fanciful descriptions (Statte tranquille...nun cce pensare [Don't Worry...Don't Think About It], 1968) portraying types and domestic and provincial settings in a style which is never resentful, even when witnessing the poverty of his people, and frequently in a tender and idyllic vein. His son, Ciccio De Marco (Mio caro patre [My Dear Father, 1964), establishing a remote contact with Antonio Chiappetta (Cosenza, 1876-1942), author of Jugale (a poem in sextets that gives life to a bizzarre character, who feigns foolishness and credulity), created the figure of a southern farmer-soldier, Rosarbino, who, in a series of letters to his father, attests the disorientation of the southerner tackling personal problems in the big city. The point of view of the farmer is conveyed in a macaronic dialect, mixing Italian words and corroded slang, which expresses the corrosive ironic tension with which the poet judges the whole of contemporary society.
To document the wealth of poetry in Calabrian dialect one could mention many authors balanced, in general, between the impressionistic sketch, satirical bend and social engagement, that give voice to the rage or anxiety of the people in their vernacular language, but rarely with any authenticity of expression: Rocco Ritorto (Caulonia 1924) is balanced between irony and feeling (Spilazzi [Threads], 1969; Hjangazzi [Gleams], 1974); Domenico Vitale (Soverato 1895), tends to bring to life a world of memory, suspended between reality and dream ('I zzippuli); Emanuele di Bartolo (Crucoli 1901) turns to a type of meditative poetry (Andannu... vidennu [Going...Seeing], 1962; Picatu [Sin], 1971; Siminta n'tu carrolu [Seeds in the Road], 1973); and then the poet-farmers Micu Pelle (Risbijamundi [Waking the World], 1977) and Giuseppe Coniglio (Calabria contadina, 1973); the satirist Francesco Mazzè (S. Nicola da Crissa 1926); the most experimental, at the linguistic level, Peppino Valentini from Cosenza (A mio figlio Rosarbino); the scourge Francesco Besaldo from Amantea; Attilio Romano from Paola, Domenico Teti from S. Nicola di Crissa, Paolo La Cava from Reggio Calabria, Mimmo Staltari from Locri, Teodoro Torchia from Castelsilano, Gino Bloise from Cassano Jonio, Pasquale Cavallaro from Caulonia...
The fable instead inspires the poetry of Vittorio Butera (1877-1955). His fables, however, are very particular, and have very little to do with those of Trilussa, for example, to whom he has been compared nevertheless. The poet from Calabria does not share the same skeptical vision of life. And when he takes aim against the baseness of the human spirit (hypocrisy, intrigues, vanity, ambition, deceits), he does not limit himself to denigrating it by turning it into corrosive, shouted satire, but represents it and clearly postulates his faith in the possibility of overcoming it.
Emblematic appears the poem "'A staffetta" (Prima cantu... e doppu cuntu, 1949), dedicated to his friend Michele Pane, who "sings" the journey of the poet's daughter from America to Calabria, "messenger of love and sorrow." The sentimental and elegiac note that seems to prevail focuses on the lyric representation of the details of the journey and the town that the young woman (Libertà) discovers again, almost borrowing her father's eyes so that she can better report her impressions to him. Acquavona's fountain, the chestnut tree, the letters carved on the bark of the tree, the old mill, the river, the small house, the carnations in the window, welcome Libertà like a fairy and honor her, no less than relatives and friends, in the name of her distant father who has entrusted his identity to those signs, which have become symbols of a world living only in memory, and in part already consigned for ever to the cemetery of Adami. What is at stake is Butera's conception of poetry, which is called to play a role of neoclassical value, as comfort and illusion, but also as testimonial. The serenity that through it can reach the world cannot be hampered by the sad observations on reality. Poetry must serve man as instrument of illusion, comfort him in the moments of melancholy and sadness, freeing him from negative thoughts even when these are induced by the analysis of events. Butera discovers in popular consciousness the tension of the anecdote that metaphorizes the message, and makes it analogically expressive of moral truths through associations which unleash the mental proliferation on which rests the culture of the early ages of peoples. In some ways it is as if through it the poet aimed at representing the cognitive automatisms of ethnological culture that allegorizes reality into symbolic aggregates, and has no need for excessive rationalizations. Therefore the moral of his fables, when there is one, is almost never biting, but at times it even too predictable. An underlying empathy is always at the root of the representations of the various cases, which ultimately take on a social significance without showing it openly. Butera does not despair: the great Calabrian dream of justice is almost vindicated in the parables of the anecdotes entrusted to animals, though confidence in a palingenesis appears scarce, due to man's widespread tendency toward selfishness, always ready as he is to take advantage of his neighbor, especially when he is weaker.
The brief anecdote, the sketch, the aphorism, seem to provide Butera with the possibility to communicate his moral messages in an immediate and direct manner, through the bitterness that stays with the reader, who is forced to reflect on the apparent paradox of the situation in which a truth is concealed or a doubt suggested.
On an intermediate plane between spontaneity of writing and commitment to structure, stands the more modern poetry of Achille Cursio (born in 1930). His search follows two fundamental lines: the first concerns his posture with respect to the poetic tradition in dialect of his region, which places him on a line of continuity (and development) with Padula's Nineteenth-Century compositional models, and of the more modern ones, indebted to Pascoli and to Pane; the second derives from the need to reinvent dialect, which postulates a direct relationship with traditional speech subjected to the pressure of lexical enrichment1. It is an itinerary of progressive approximation to a personal lexicon, which nevertheless still does not become endophasic (according to Mengaldo's definition2), stopping at the threshold of that purity pursued by the most careful writers, who aspire at that finality of personal originality outside any literary tradition and even outside everyday exchanges. Because at the bottom of the operation is an effort to objectify individual experience, even when it appears to tend towards the fable.
Curcio almost bets not only on the forms, but also the lexicon of tradition, although there is an obvious effort to develop a broader koinè, which Brevini considers almost "idealizing"3. In reality, Curcio's cultured background, which has nonetheless found in dialect a congenial and varied expressive agent, prompts the poet to experiment with a series of stanzaic and metrical combinations suited to the representation of a human world anthropologically fixed in a regional setting, but shaken by the dialogic forces of alternative models found in the cultural reality of the nation. With the consequent necessity to revise or enrich the linguistic code itself, but with the inevitable tensions to go beyond the typology of living dialect speech, which seems to reduce the ideological violence of the message, determining an apparent regression towards a descriptive or sentimental Pascoli, and therefore away from the popular and towards the subjective. In deciphering his experience, like other recent ones, it is a question of redefining the whole scope of dialect literatures, which can no longer be considered exclusively in relation to the greater or lesser degree in which they reflect the culture of a people, nor be judged on the extraneous contents of the texts, whether of protest or anything else. In fact, the effort to adopt dialect as a language potentially capable of rising to the rank of instrument well suited to poetry is becoming increasingly evident. In order to achieve this end, it becomes almost indispensable, for the poet, to assume an attitude of extreme openness, even when this might entail a sort of refuge in individual lyricism or the recovery of models applied differently in Italian poetry.
Curcio never tries to describe the social or the political in ideological terms. Beyond a participatory ethical and human tension, his philosophical credo can be summed up in the apparently conflictual "and I don't care," which reveals rather his all-important literary preoccupation. This can materialize in the numerous metaphors, in alliteration, onomatopoeia, metonymy, in the occurrence of varied stanzaic forms (with frequent use of the Sapphic), in the variety of meter, and in the complexity of the sound patterns. So that dialect itself ultimately tends towards a sort of "illustrious speech" of Dantean memory, language of poetry, in a way "reflected,"4 if one likes, but personal in the results.
Totally emancipated from any regional conditioning, characterized by linguistic experimentation and contemporary themes, is the poetry of Dante Maffia (born in 1946), who applies himself to it with the same earnestness shown in his Italian poetry, raising it to very high levels. Versification is always subjected to a rhythmic and metrical control that entails precise stylistic and lexical choices, which give form to the substance of the images in the representation of a world which is private, but tends to unfold in the interpretive key of collective consciousness, regional or provincial as it may be, but aiming at becoming emblematic of a universal condition. In this sense the recovery or even the invention of an archaic language, which includes speech and at the same time goes beyond it, making possible the erasure of all the trite topoi recurring in the vernacular tradition, allows the poet to choose words capable of expressing a world of events and objects, of feelings and reflections which, going through the psyche, reaches the intellect that organizes it in orderly and meaningful sequences.
In Maffia's poetry one finds none of the clichés typical of Calabrian dialect poetry. The poet lives the problems of contemporary intellectual life, confirming them on the personal plane, but without giving in to elegy. If language is the instrument, the book is the channel through which he can attest his presence in the world: being made of words and paper means the possibility of materializing the self in a medium capable of fixing even the moment indelibly, so that one can find it again in time and reexamine the formal premises in the light of new certainties and acquisitions absorbed through the book itself. This does not mean that the discourse becomes overly intellectualized in metaphorizing the experience of solitude always on the verge of being unmasked: "Yes, I am / and I am not here / [...] I wait / in my hiding place for a sign / I hide to be caught." The hiding place is the cocoon in which solitude is cultivated. Outside it, but nowhere else, lives the other (nature, surroundings, people) to which the cocoon feel it must open. The inventory of relics runs through memory's archive, becomes symbol of a revised anthropology and the cause of an existential restlessness that leads to a vagabond destiny. For this reason the poet renounces the paper world of dreams and, along with it, the world typical of traditional vernacular poetry, in order to attest his different way of reclaiming private song in dialect, with the torment of contemporary life experienced in the closed space of his nest in contact with the things he loves, the secret pacts, and again the books: "I always take along / a book of poems."
Ancient words help the modern poet to find his secret hiding place. Dialect, that belonged to the fathers but not the children, cannot be employed to signify a world of paper, made of low houses, resigned farmers, abused poor people, deprivations, rebellions or fairy tales if it wishes to be an instrument that "conquers the silence of a thousand centuries." It must become pliable, reinvent itself, adapt to the needs of contemporary expression, become "language of poetry" after having been "language of reality," attempt even the haiku ("Long summer, / sounds and songs over the sea. / The cicadas dance"), in sum, make itself, as signifier to overcharge itself with meaning and aspire at least to a "life of paper."
With A vite i tutte i jurne5 [Everyday Life] and U Ddìje puvirìlle6 [The Poor God] Maria crowns his inquiry. They attest an anthropomorphic idea of poetry, sought in the long dialogue with Baudelaire, pursued in the footsteps of returning Homer, investigated in the flesh and blood of his own and other people's everyday existence, stripped in memory, exalted in the word sparsely arranged in the text because of the ever present fear of misdecoding. The poet Maffia has turned many of his cards face up. The event appears as an instrument capable of setting off the new language in order to repossess autonomously archetypal signifiers deposited in vernacular speech, reinvent them as sounds and insert them in contexts capable of modernizing the old signs, expanding their expressive potential. An event that tends to signify itself almost as legend in history, through personal utterance or oral enunciation that turns it into sound, verbal music, after having been steeped in a sort of personal myth: of the earth that has nourished it, of the people that have formed it, of the waters that have made it smooth, of the wind, the affections, the misfortunes, the sun (love), the shadow (death). And everything becomes narration, word spoken to himself but addressed to others through the years that flow ever identical yet apparently different over a human race reduced to insignificant accident.
The Attic flavor of the ancient tongue imbues a discourse capable of orchestrating the technical and rhetorical devices of versification, which can confer such new dignity to the vernacular register that the common language appears almost subordinate by comparison, especially with respect to the persisting inventory of relics sifted by the memory of the poet.
It is no longer a question of changing the world, but to know it and accept it for what it's worth, certain that everything always starts from the beginning once again with every death or change. The agony is repeated, but so are the small joys of the day, the discoveries, the starts, sensual and wasteful love (Erotiche) like the kind that is a flame of the spirit and does not need to be consummated to be enjoyed, but lives in the beguiling power of longing: hope and desire, charm and consolation, beginning and waiting. Love that continually risks the contact, contamination with death, and is a sign of life, satisfying and comfortable, miraculous in the alternation of sensations and thoughts it generates ("You can kill me and I will be reborn, / you can give me life and i will die"). The event tends to take on connotations of infinity in the cyclical recurrence of experience, which is individual, but always tends to be affected by the destiny of man sentenced to an endless journey of enrichment.
Maffia attests (maybe for a whole generation, and not only for Calabria) how poetry can renew starting from itself, from the point where transparency was still essential, and peculiar senses were entrusted to verbal signs. "Permanent education," then, according to the title of a collection of poetry, as an unstoppable process of growth in history, but also as a maturation of critical faculty, of selection and judgment that allows one to approach with confidence the instrument (the utterable word) that appears more susceptible to expressiveness.
Closer to this type of linguistic and thematic operation, among the younger poets, seems to be Stefano Marino from Reggio Calabria, who has provided too few samples to allow more than just a mention. But it is obvious that, through these means, even Calabrian dialect poetry has freed itself from the fetters of mimetism, of folklore and facile, party-oriented sociology, to join the most advanced experiments of national dialect poetry, in order to realize that discovery of identity that inspires every true poet.

Luigi Reina


1Cfr. E. Bonea, "Parlanti e poeti: il dialetto tra sopravvivenza e invenzione," in Letteratura e storia meridionale. Studi offerti ad Aldo Vallone,**, Florence 1989, pps. 879-880.
2 P. V. Mengaldo, Introduction to Poeti italiani del Novecento, Milan 1984, p. LXXI.
3Le parole perdute. Dialetti e poesia nel nostro secolo, Turin 1990, p. 313.
4Cfr. G. B. Bronzini, Teoria e problemi di poesia popolare, Bari 1967, that takes up a well-known concept of B. Croce.
5Roma, Edizioni Carte Segrete, 1987 (pref. by G. Spagnoletti).
6Milano, All'insegna del Pesce d'Oro, 1990 (pref. by A. Stella).


Poeti calabresi moderni, edited by C. Zupi, Palermo 1925.
Poeti dialettali calabresi, edited by G. Greco, Catanzaro 1931.
Poeti dialettali calabresi, edited by G. Silvestri e A. Silvia, Genoa 1932.
Poesia calabrese del secondo Novecento, edited by G. Morabito, Reggio Calabria 1977.
Antologia della poesia dialettale calabrese dalle origini a nostri giorni, a cura di S. Gambino, Catanzaro 1967.
Poesia calabrese del secondo Novecento, edited by G. Morabito, Reggio Calabria 1977.
Il fiore della poesia dialettale calabrese, introduction by G. Palange, Cosenza 1978.
Vocabolario del dialetto calabrese, edited by L. Accatatis, Castrovillari, 1895-97 (ristampa, Cosenza 1977-78).


G. Cimino, "Poeti dialettali calabresi," in Il Ponte, September-October 1950.
R. De Bella, La poesia dialettale in Calabria, Florence 1959.
P. Crupi, La letteratura calabrese, Messina-Florence 1972.
M. Spanò, Letteratura dialettale calabrese, Reggio Calabria 1973
U. Bosco, Pagine calabresi Reggio Calabria 1975.
A. Piromalli, La letteratura calabrese, Naples 1977.
D. Scafoglio, L'identità minacciata. La poesia dialettale e la crisi post-unitaria, Messina-Florence 1977.
R. Troiano, Cultura popolare e letteratura dialettale in Calabria in La letteratura dialettale in Italia, edited by P. Mazzamuto, Palermo 1984.
L. Reina, Poesia e regione. Un secolo di poesia in Calabria, Salerno 1991.
C. Chiodo, Poeti calabresi tra Otto e Novecento, Rome 1992.
P. Tuscano, "Canto e racconto nei poeti dialettali calabresi del primo Novecento," in AA. VV., La lingua e il sogno, edited by V. Moretti, Rome 1993.