A History in Two Parts

Luigi Reina

A critical definition of twentieth-century dialect poetry in southern1 and insular2 Italy means dealing with problems not easily assimilated, even if apparently not difficult to identify, because they are related to, and often depend directly on, very heterogenous factors. Simultaneously, preeminent appear to be those factors determined by different anthropological milieus (at least in the very long first period of a history that essentially continues until the turning point which is clearly recognizable - with very rare exceptions, even of great significance3 - in the last quarter of the century, with the emergence of the neodialect line). And then there are those factors more directly related to the canons of literariness, which involve the linguistic medium primarily in its exemplary grammatical structure.
The regions under scrutiny have experienced (or were subjected to) century-old conditions that have profoundly affected the mindsets of the populations, determining conservative attitudes tending timidly toward uniformity. The need to safeguard ethnic identity has often meant remaining enclosed within the natural anthropological and territorial boundaries. This has also entailed a strong drive to reclaim one's dignity, both in the spontaneous reiteration of ritual forms of oral communication, and in the expression of a knowledge which is most often born from a local rather than a national experience. The latter has in reality always appeared challenged in some way by an attempt at actual exorcism (a widespread controversy against urban modernity). Thus, attitudes aiming to justify the privileged adoption of abstract categories of a way of life or of a personal culture (Sicilian, Neapolitan, Molisan, Calabrian...), distinct from that of the nation as a whole, seen for the most part as something far away and almost alien, have been able to take root and build momentum . If on the one hand this has contributed to safeguarding an inalienable anthropological patrimony, on the other it has gradually led to a sort of schematizing regression, which has certainly not fostered the elimination of the numerous obstacles blocking the advance of dialect poetry in the contemporary world. Thus, certain inequalities with respect to Italian poetry, instead of diminishing, have in certain ways become more prominent.
It is not incidental that right in the aftermath of the political unification of Italy there was an increased interest in ethnological research and a widespread proliferation of studies on folklore and popular culture, which required numerous transcriptions from the oral tradition. Just as it is not by chance that there was a concomitant general flowering of poetry in dialect that lasted a very long time, with an attitude which certainly parted from Romantic tenets. Everywhere, though, a few essential questions took center stage. They were tied to formulations which were not altogether new, especially when they touched on certain peculiar characteristics of textuality organized into a system, all substantially referable to genetic factors or problems of destination.
As for the genesis, it is clear that the anthropological structures of the collective imagination (having to do at any rate with literature) played a primary role. Through them, regional and subregional differences were able to gain ground with their own peculiarities as well as with their standardizing features. From time to time, however, the chosen path necessarily forced the system either downward (description of local peculiarities), or upward (tendency to record minimal details of the universal human condition). It was therefore natural for dialect poets to align themselves with the two modes that would on the whole define twentieth-century poetry.
The first, tied to the popular (often also taken in its more restrictive meaning), at times presupposed attitudes of almost automatic immersion in it (with more than a few concessions to folkloric and descriptive material, with the consequence that attention to "speech" produced typically vernacular texts); at other times, it presumed the tendency toward the detachment typical of bourgeois writers, who gave a voice to the people through a somewhat moralistic or ideologized treatment of reality, certainly not without the risk of obvious strains. The second line led to the preference for consolidated literary canons in their age-old traditions, which seemed to guarantee a sort of dependable grammar, maybe with a watchful eye to the poetic experience in Italian as well.
On the one hand then (to resume a general Romantic classification which will for a long time retain some validity), the popular imagination was mined for material which could later be returned to that same imagination, exploiting the channels of verse communication; on the other hand, there was a tendency toward a different manipulation of the same material, aiming at communicating within higher, if not wider, circuits. As a consequence, even languages tended somehow to become differentiated: along the popular line there was the more explicit use of local "speech" (vernaculars); in the other cases, the texts were less differentiated grammatically (at times with a "philological" tendency to reconstruct the lexicon on the basis of the "idioms" themselves, rediscovered in their original form, either by reclaiming the traditional textual tradition, or with some imaginative contamination that would also allow attempts at anti-literary expressionism.).
Not an easy path to follow, which met with different applications over a rather fragmented territory, above all linguistically.4 And if the lessons taught by the culture of naturalistic realism seemed to prevail, there were also those of Decadent derivation which sanctioned the recovery of a melancholy, sentimental Romanticism, elegiac and georgic, lyrical and melodic; so that one could go from pure mimesis to forms of more elaborate expression in search of the cantabile, if with a popular flavor only rarely abandoned.
The practice of vernacular dialectality, then, when not instrumentally pursued for folkloric, sociological or broadly political use, tended to be connected more with "nature" than with "culture" in the popular vein. It frequently relied on the allegorical fable or parable, the invective, satire, the song of love or protest, sketches and local events, descriptiveness and gnomic sententiousness, blasphemous wisecracks and epigrammatic wordplay, almost always in keeping with a markedly ethnic and broadly conservative lore, which contributed to underline its differences with respect to elitist Italian literature.
On the more strictly bourgeois side, instead, it carried out a sort of philological reconstruction of lexicon and grammar. And when it could count on a tradition in some ways already "illustrious" (Latium, Campania, Sicily...), working on the "poetics," it produced elitist texts (Trilussa, Di Giacomo, Buttitta...) which could be somehow assimilated to those of contemporary Italian poetry, albeit with more narrowly defined themes.
In this sense, the role played by certain exemplary models (from the more recent Belli, Trilussa, Di Giacomo, Russo, to the more distant Berneri, Basile, Cortese, Meli, Tempio) seemed very significant; and not only in the respective regions, but also in the broad context of dialect poetry for the grammatical canons it provided and the guarantee of a thematic tradition. Along with these, when interest turned simultaneously to poetry in Italian, particular insights could at times be found in "small things" and in Pascoli's georgic poems, and more infrequently even in a certain Parini, in Leopardi, in Carducci, in D'Annunzio (if not the classics!). This could even be a way to reclaim dialect as an instrument of poetry, were it not that what prevailed in most cases were forms of imitation of established models (as it generally happened with Di Giacomo's melodic line) which, when dealing with certain themes and their mode of expression, had very little to do with lexicon. In general, the latter was regulated by forms of linguistic empiricism even when philological concerns were very strong, so that the various poetic experiences in dialect rarely matched the achievements of contemporary Italian poetry. The persistently realistic (and therefore mimetic) component completed the picture, preventing the necessary linguistic ferment to which poetry has always owed its very nature.
Only in the aftermath of W.W. II, and to a large extent thanks to the influence exerted by Pasolini (but perhaps, more indirectly, Gadda as well), a different, pro-dialect attitude was beginning to emerge, even in the South. Dialects were gradually being seen as flexible idioms capable of being exploited for the sake of poetry, rather than as primary signifiers tied to the experience of reality. The first to sense this were poets who, abandoning the standard language, affected too deeply by the leveling contamination of consumerism (Pierro), but also very resistant to the sophisticated ideological experimentation with non-significance carried out by the neo-avantgarde, turned to a sort of almost archetypical language, a mental language rather than a language of "speech"; a language capable of bending to all types of subjective needs (gnoseological, psychological, lyrical...) and of favoring the necessary deepening of meaning by dilating the referential, tonal, rhythmic, phonic potentials of poetic diction. Thus dialects progressively shed their onus as pure "speech" (little more than "languages of nature"), and began transforming themselves into true "languages of culture," while poets started to look at these idioms with a neo-Stilnovistic attitude that would lead to a neo-Petrarchan (but no longer uniform) use of language. Hierarchies and residual resistances fell to the point that, especially in the last two decades, not a small number of poets have substituted the standard language with dialect, at times renouncing it completely, at times setting it aside occasionally, convinced of the equal dignity of all languages with respect to poetry.
Might this be a way of foreshadowing the cultures of the second millennium on the basis of a new awareness that, safeguarding identities, guarantees man in his essence of ratio and verbum against planetary de-individualization, which risks progressively depriving nationalities of meaning, as the latter had deprived of meaning all regional differences? It is difficult to say.
What the neodialect flowering of recent years seems to want to reclaim, with the strength of its suggestions and the insistence of its practice, is the right to encode semantic fields individually definable as cultural choices, apparently deprived of the measure of virginity they seem to postulate, but in reality aspiring to become charged with emblematic meanings. All this within a context which takes for granted the progressive impoverishment, through its erosion and lowering, of the standard language, which after all is also the product of an age-old evolution of a recognizable and easily definable dialect.5 Against it other dialects represented not the regressive and deviant variation, but only an alternative which, if it has not known certain "normalizing" paths, does not deserve, almost by definition, the indifference or self-serving ostracism with which the "different" has always been exorcised. On the contrary, it imposes a gnoseological and analytical openness.
It is not a question of giving in to a demonic temptation, maybe aimed at endorsing "maternal" tongues over the "paternal" one, but rather of the need to recognize and define the expressive potentials of the various languages6. Along this line of thought, very significant seem the following verses of a Calabrian poet who for a while has been using, without distinction and with critical awareness, both standard language and dialect with similar results : "Giacinto, now / that I write / with my mother's language / I feel things more deeply, / words have substance / they're not dead, consumed, / they belong to no one / it's as if they were / springing from a blaze of water."7
The real problem that needs to be resolved today, it seems, stems from the progressive loss of substance of the local idioms under the overwhelming invasion of the media which, as they progressively despoil dialect lexicons, also impoverish that of the standard language. Thus, they promote again the dichotomy between the people and the élite, which adversely affects the daily use of language and its literary application: the former compelled to foster a normalized use of slang, the latter driven to appear more and more aloof through the forced retreat into apparently neo-purist spheres. As a consequence, there is on the one hand the tendency toward a language that might be proper to an extended "region" and very large "guilds," on the other toward a sort of dynamic academic neo-Petrarchism that takes into account the evolutionary processes of the language in use as well as the work of those committed to the rehabilitation of the standard language and of dialects, also with the aim of making their medium of expression dantesquely "illustrious" and "cardinal."
It is easy to understand what remains of the old dichotomy between language "of culture" and language "of nature," when referring to the possible demarcation between national language and dialect. Because the common language found itself in the position of having to embody and express these two conditions at a time when it had to assume the responsibilities of mass communication by creating a new grammar, capable of regulating the new linguistic conventions on the basis of the colorless utterances of the language of information and of the repetitive and euphemistic language of show business, based on a bare vocabulary, or of the often meaningless or highly technical language of politics and the esoteric and instrumental language of sports.
In such a context, is the use of dialects justified in coming forth with new credentials? In our opinion, there does not seem to be any doubt. On the condition that the medium rid itself of all traditional ballast: from that appropriated by the languages of the mass media, to that already disowned by the literature in Italian; and that it be accorded the expressive dignity of the languages of poetry, not forced by ideological prejudices toward particular themes or imprisoned within codified norms.
Southern neodialect poets today strive to regain the right to a personal re-creation of language for purely expressionistic purposes, as do poets in Italian, conditioned only by artistic expression. They address every subject by striving to convey through essentialness what standard language now says in extension or through artifice, and they often aim at the reinvention of languages now frequently half-buried in the consciousness of the speakers through the effect of standardization.
As a consequence, southern dialects tend to become true languages of art, shedding all the dross of folklore and overcoming the obstacles of slanginess. It is almost a way of harking back to some writers from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, who had provided fodder for literature tout court (I am thinking, for instance, of the original and deforming, often hyperbolic, expressionism of Sgruttendio da Scafati, or the differently "normalizing" expressionism of Giambattista Basile or Giulio Cesare Cortese...). Dialects, that is, are becoming flexible again in the cultured use of poets who can mediate their aristocratic artistic needs with the more general ones of expressiveness (and of communication as well, even if privileged), bringing about a meeting among "speakers" (often merely hypothetical) and "non speakers," in the name of a recovered language aiming at the absolute, the eternal: the classical, finally.
This language crosses the boundaries of dialect anthropology inasmuch as it presupposes a refined and supernational culture. For it is precisely the latter that has permitted an active use of it, capable of making dialects more "cardinal" and "illustrious" as they become less tied to the slangy forms of everyday communication.
In this way, an awareness of the undertaking becomes an essential vehicle of sublimation for a lexicon that can even be reduced to its archaic forms, as it can be legitimately reinvented, through the exploitation of the natural flexibility of poetic languages which have never been constrained by the standardization typical of the languages of communication.
Pasolini was essentially on the mark when he spoke, crowning a long reflection on dialect, of an "earlier, infinitely purer" language.8 A definition that, if it can appear today in some ways beholding to certain Romantic and Decadent postulates, when charged with the sense of added responsibility imposed by its utilization with the overall demands of neodialect, it reveals all the potential resources of an instrument which has been perhaps definitely rediscovered.
The challenge of neodialect poetry in the South, therefore, today seems at work on two fronts simultaneously: language and subject matter. With a process that affects in various ways all the regions or all the varieties of "idioms" (those already having a marginal literary tradition as well as those that have remained longer in a stage of virginity). In either case, the risk of a narrowly mimetic use of slanginess seems to have been definitively set aside, in favor of adapting the word to the diverse demands of poetic expression.
The widespread practice of linguistic creativity has shown that the poet's essential need to convey his inner discourse through a language as "jealously private," "endophasic,"9 as possible can now be met by dialects, sufficiently mature to overcome the risks of folkloric and neo-naturalistic lapses, as well as the return to neo-Decadent and Romantic themes.
The fact that characterizes the recent generations of poets in dialect springs directly from this, and is embodied by the search for a mode of expression which is as original as it can be, and at the same time makes it possible to deal with even an extremely modern subject matter. Essentially, poets have not allowed themselves to be affected by the progressive loss of "speakers" that has characterized the course of dialect during the onslaught of the media, because they have never looked to those speakers as their readers.
More and more the audience of poetry, in an era of planetary circulation of culture, tends in fact to be defined by new categories, not bound to regional or national specificities, to the extent that the themes themselves are affected, as it is increasingly forced to identify universal values in the particulars. Dialect becomes a "precious," "refined" medium because it is a purer refuge for the poetic word absolutely longing for the essential.10
In such a way, the languages "of nature" offer themselves to arduous "philology," developed on a textuality traditionally very alien to them, and represent themselves tendentiously as rediscovered languages "of culture," flexible enough to become the instruments of a modern trobar.


1In the case of this volume, with a geographic extension of the area to include regions such as Latium and Abruzzo, for schematizing reasons related not just to editorial needs as it addresses an international audience , but referring directly to the Romantic partition of Sismondi, who was the first to propose a distinction between North and South, in which there is no room for the typically Italian geographic category of center.
2But for Sardinia it is really difficult to speak of "dialects," inasmuch as Sardinian has always been a true language, independently of the four subregional varieties in which it is represented (Campidanese, Logudorese, Gallurese, Sassarese).
3I refer mainly to Albino Pierro, whose first collections in the dialect of Tursi date back from the Sixties.
4It would be useful to remember, besides the local varieties of dialects, the various Greek and Abanian areas.
5"...standard Italian is a dialect like any other form of Italian and... it makes no sense to suppose that any one dialect is in some way linguistically superior to any other" (J.K. Chambers-P. Trudgill, La dialettologia, Bologna 1987).
6Cf. C. Segre, Lingua, stile, società, Milan 1974.
7Dante Maffia, "Jacì," in U Ddìe puvirìlle, Milan 1990.
8Cf. Passione e ideologia, Milan 1960, p. 137.
9Of "endophasia" speak both Baldini with respect to Biagio Marin ("he disinters an almost extinct dialect... making it phonetically extravagant, but all the more resounding with personal accents in the direction of a private endophasia," "Osservazioni sull'ultima poesia dialettale," in Ulisse, XI, February 1972) and Mengaldo with respect to Pierro ("...one can grasp... the necessary paradox ... of a part of the current poetry in dialect, which from vehicle of socially open and communicative messages tends to become more and more a jealously individual language, almost endophasic," in Poeti italiani del Novecento, Milan 1978, p. 960; but already Contini, reviewing Pasolini's Poesie a Casarsa, stigmatized the necessity of a progressively stratified reading of dialect poetry, as if refusing the medianic assistance of translation: "allow a certain time to digest this Friulan dialect, which is not everyday food; leave some margin to the wonder that a "spirit" "à la page" has taken refuge among those final s's, those palatals, those diphtongs" ("Il limite della poesia dialettale," in Corriere del Ticino, April 24, 1943.
10Cf. Via terra. Antologia di poesia neodialettale, edited by A. Serrao with an introduction by Luigi Reina, Udine 1992.