Angelo Mundula

The Sardinian dialect muse sang for a long time in the catacombs before being heard. The religious linguistic references are not at all casual; on the contrary, they are intended to underscore, right from the start, the origin and strictly religious nature of the first literary manifestations in the island, subjected, as is well known, to recurrent foreign dominations for two thousand years, a considerable time span. Therefore, the image of a muse with her head cut off, mutilated almost up to our own days, seems to me at once the one that best represents the condition of Sardinian dialect poetry, precisely as being headless, unable to find itself, know itself, and, in brief, to exist outside of its servile condition of forced obeisance toward "external" cultures, that were always or almost always endured, tolerated, but at times even resisted and contested. That explains why, then, the glue of all the various cultures of the island, of all the infinite gamut of dialects (but there are those who maintain that Sardinian is a true language, with the authority of people like Max L. Wagner, a true "archaic narrative with its own marked characteristics," (La lingua sarda, Berne, 1951) has been and still is today, for the most part, that variably religious sentiment, which one could say was born with the gosos, spiritual and religious songs that allowed the Sardinians to speak inter nos a language which was not hostile, even indifferent to the rulers, if not totally accepted by them and almost solicited, as in the case of Spanish rulers. There is no doubt that the Sardinian muse has retained until now a sensual, religious nature, in the pagan or mystical sense (Pasolini wrote in Passione e ideologia, Garzanti), but I would add more markedly Christian and Catholic than in other parts of Italy, if one only considers that the first practitioners of Sardinian dialect poetry are often clergymen. No doubt, that religiosity at times concealed much more: a sentiment of revolt and at any rate of not belonging to the different species that had crossed the sea to reach the Sardinian shores and then further on inland, where the sense of the small fatherland lost has always been stronger and more alive.
Since then, that headless muse with scattered limbs has been searching for her lost head and her tortured limbs precisely in poetry, always so revealing of the human spirit, of one's true, conscious or unconscious identity, with a doggedness that has become in time almost an obsession in both life and writing. Thus that also explains why the second great glue of so much output in verse, which I would not weigh in all together in a consideration of poetry, has been that sentiment of civil indignation, of protest and revolt that at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century found in the Arcadian Francesco Ignazio Mannu and in his hymn The Sardinian Patriot to His Feudal Lords (whose meaning is clear), what has been defined as the "Sardinian Marseillaise." But all has been said also explains why the Sardinian language, as I already stated elsewhere (la Stampa-Tuttolibri, July 15, 1978), "born in state of submission, is a tragic language (in the sense of a Greek tragedy) and has retained and keeps retaining a dramatic charge not only in the words of the female mourners and their death song (s'attitudu), but even in the singsongs of children and for children (ninnios) which always contain a dark foreboding of death or menace or misfortune: almost the fear of the ancient rulers' or masters' return."
No doubt this state of submission has determined the loss of an immense poetic output that, above all at the beginning but to a considerable degree until today, has been an oral output, only a very small part of which has been handed down from generation to generation, almost as an act of survival, or clandestinely assembled, as in the case of F.I. Mannu's aforementioned hymn against the feudal lords. On the other hand, the awareness of speaking one's own autonomous language has certainly not favored that process of osmosis, of continual exchange between language and dialect and between dialect and language which has taken place in many parts of Italy, to the mutual enrichment of both. Instead, there has been a history of continued rejection between the Italian language and Sardinian dialects (or Sardinian language). Maybe only in the poetry of Sebastiano Satta, until recently considered the greatest Sardinian poet in italian, has dialect given off a few sparks. For the rest of them the firing pin has not worked. It might be however interesting to underline the tie (in certain cases inevitable, as for the Catalan poetry of Alghero) between Sardinian dialect poetry and above all Spanish poetry (especially Latin-American) to which ours is related through specific themes as well as through an affinity of rhythms and timbres. The very particular Sardinian versification, which had so struck Pasolini that he came to declare that "the exceptionl nature of the metrical forms and stylemes is even more surprising" than in his own Friuli (op. cit., ), if on the one hand goes back to medieval laudi no less, on the other hand it is imbued with the singing, very musical rhythm of certain Spanish poetry, especially from Latin-America. And at this point one can mention the name of the Spanish poet who more than any other has had a decisive, and no doubt preponderant, influence on all Sardinian dialect poetry, namely García Lorca, the lesser Lorca of "Lament for Ignacio" and Romancero gitano. Aside from the aedic nature of this poet (and Sardinian poetry is born as poetry meant to be recited, as at any rate has always happened in public squares and as still happens now and then during festivals and town feasts), in much of the Sardinian dialect poetry there is a popular (at times populist) climate and sensibility, the thematic specificity (love, destiny, tragedy, death) characteristic of Lorca, not to mention the lexical loans and even certain marked linguistic calques often found in many past and present Sardinian poets. The only great difference is that, in contrast with Lorca's poetry, that feeds on great literary and cultural references, Sardinian dialect poetry is almost exclusively a kind of poetry that finds all its strength in being the immediate and direct expression of popular sentiment. They are, in short, two types of poetry differently popular, not at the ideological, but at the artistic level.
Indeed, the great wordplay of some of the major exponents of Sardinian dialectality (Lobina, Mastino, Ruju and others) consists in accentuating the friction between Italian and dialect, between cultured language and popular language, playing ironically, sarcastically at times, on the grotesque and parodistic effects stemming from a use we might call "macaronic" of Italian itself or from the sense of estrangement that comes from the contact with dialect's diversity, as if it they were two non-communicating galaxies or monads. It must be said that Sardinian dialect writers have not opted for this linguistic choice out of literary saturation, as Montale would have said (Sulla poesia, Mondadori); if anything, in Sardinia the opposite has always been true. Our dialect writers are direct descendants of their maternal dialect, for the most part not even inventors of an idiolect of their own, that is, of their own language, specific, personal, outside the rules of natural linguistic orthodoxy, the way it has happened elsewhere, as in the great examples of Marin in Grado, Loi in Lombardy, Pierro in Tursi or Pasolini in Friuli. In the Nineteenth Century in Sardinia they were still searching for a language, a linguistic habitat ubi consistere. Later only a few isolated cases (Salvatore Ruju, Pompeo Calvia, Cesarino Mastino, Benvenuto Lobina, Francesco Masala and Ignazio Delogu - in addition to the even more isolated examples, if one can call them that, of Sari and Pinna have demonstrated the possibility of bending dialect to their own personal expressive need, with a few happy inventions at the level of verbal forms and of the still uncodified orthography.
Instead, in Sardinia it happened that a dialect poet, such as the logudorese Francesco Masala, has been able to be dialectal even when he was writing in Italian, borrowing from the maternal dialect locutions, forms and lexicon of the purest dialectality, in short translating from his dialect without betraying it, the way it almost always happens in real translations. Can one then speak of a language for these Sardinian poets? Or must one speak of what Contini would have defined a minor language? Does it make sense to speak of a language when there is no linguistic koinè valid for the whole island and this presumed, fancied language is yet to be invented and structured and, in short, artificially recreated? A problem we leave to linguists. We can only remark that our own félibristes express themselves in an infinite variety of dialects, at times contiguous, at times very remote, not to mention that in Sardinia there is a group of poets who gravitate in the area of Alghero and write in a variety of true Catalan and who are therefore the children of a truly separate linguistic civilization, although they consider themselves very much children of the great Sardinian mother, with which they retain very close ties. The question, in the end, is almost frivolous and idle since if one stops to consider it is not even relevant if a poet writes in dialect or in Italian, if it is true that he is such not on the basis of the linguistic instrument adopted, but exclusively on the strength of the results achieved. The dialectologic querelle that from time to time gains new momentum, from different angles and perspectives (whether dialect has already disappeared or is about to become extinct, so that it would be better to file away any question relative to it; whether it is legitimate to place on the same level dialect poetry and Italian poetry; whether one should reserve for dialect a narrower operational field than the one accorded to italian, etc.) frankly seems to me not to be taking into account the fact that the problem, in the final analysis, concerns only the method of a linguistic search that may lead to the heart of truth, increase man's knowledge and above all find, in today's levelling even linguistic in the rampant and pervasive conformism, in the more and more mortifying massification, the most suitable instrument for such achievements, which are both human and poetic.
The enemy to be defeated is conformism, linguistic as well, and linguistic consumerism, no less alarming and serious than consumerism tout court, and perhaps at least in part an effect of the latter. It is in the face of this verbal flooding of a language more and more mixed, of this mixtum compositum, of this mishmash of different languages, sectorial, technological etc., it is in the face of this falseness of language that the poet must seek the best way to be able to say, once again, what ditta dentro, which amounts to saying the sentiment that he shares with other men. Just as one must try to save with all his strength a haven of greenness, of a living and real nature, threatened by the ever increasing flows of concrete, the same must be done in the realm of poetic language. Then it is of precise, maybe civil, moral and religious significance, even more so than poetic, that a great number of Twentieth-Century poets, after a period of limbo, have dived into the great sea of dialectality, as the place of authenticity and truth in contrast with the falseness of life and history that language was dispensing in the erosion of time, of modes and forms.
If this has a meaning for all the dialect poets of Italy, it certainly does so even more for the dialect poets from Sardinia. Their severed tongue, severed for centuries, for millennia, required and requires, with the attainment of an ever greater awareness, that very maternal tongue, that tongue that descended into the depths of time and space, of history and life, be recovered and made to sound like new: but where indeed, if not in the place designated for this, namely poetry?
In answer to a question from Renato Tucci (Il lettore di provincia, n. 79, Dec. 1990) Franco Brevini, author of Le parole perdute [Lost Words], Einaudi, said, as well as anyone ever could: "I felt in that dialect pronunciation something familiar, something that had passed through my existence. Much later I was to discover that that very inner resonance, that unpredictable echo aroused that evening by Pasolini's poetry constitutes the profound reason for writing in dialect." I cite this impression and consideration textually to describe the condition of the Sardinian poet who swims upstream like a lost salmon in order to trace back and find that very "inner resonance" again, that "unpredictable echo" that for Brevini constitutes the profound reason for writing in dialect and, for the Sardinian, the profound reason for his finding himself again in his natural, maternal, ancient linguistic habitat, severed at the roots by the recurrent dominations,
The use of the dialectal linguistic instrument is for the Sardinian, therefore, not only a means to swim upstream, to recreate his history (if history, our history, is above all the search for our most intimate word, our most secret, most authentic and true), but also a sort of revenge against those who have erased our lost words in the long voyage of the millennia. Twentieth Century dialect poetry is in Sardinia first of all a poetry, a poetic word that bears the weight of this immense tragedy, of this initial trauma, which has become, as I stated earlier, obsessive. More than anyone else, its spokesman has been, writing in Italian and Sardinian dialect, but at any rate always with a sort of inevitable dialectality, a poet such as Francesco Masala who, even when he writes prose, has told this "history of the vanquished" in an almost obsessive way, allowing himself to be somewhat overcome by it (with uneven, but at any rate never really important, results), with a violent and exasperated populism, not lacking a few happy notes, between the epic and the dramatic. Others, like Salvator Ruju, have tried to reclaim a whole lost civilization, that zappadorina [peasant] civilization, indeed dialectal, with a type of poetry that perhaps also meant an extreme, desperate rappel à l'ordre, and successfully refining and modulating the dialect of Sassari with subtle grace and spirited intensity. His poetry is tinged with heartrending longing for something that the poet perceives as being irremediably lost or elusive, and his poetic word is the attempt to erect a small monument to a small rural world already infested with nettles and concrete. Everything with a sense of acute, restless morality.
But there are those who have used dialect has a true autonomous language, endowed with a force and dignity equal to that of the Italian language (like almost all Sardinian dialect poets), even having fun ridiculing it, doing a parody and caricature of it, to make one feel the erosion caused by time and everyday linguistic usage; like ziu Gesaru (Cesarino Mastino), and those who, like Benvenuto Lobina, have felt this vernacular language of his as being an alternative to the Italian language, as the most suitable, most effective and natural instrument with which to shout his rage, his desperation, for this land of ours lost and abandoned, transforming the Salvator Ruju's song, between idyllic and elegiac, into an almost epic song of rebellion and protest.
But there is in all the Sardinian dialect poetry a sort of concordant (and at times monotonous, as in Masala) song of protest which is not only a call to arms against all that is responsible be it men or accidents of life and history for the loss of the small linguistic fatherland (or motherland), of this severed tongue of ours, but a continuous, persistent search for a new identity, as well as for the one erased by time and men. Often there is something untidy and patched-up in this meticulous search, in this movement between the mimesis of what's happening in other parts of Italy and the world (and Sardinian poetry, in this respect, is lagging considerably behind) and true improvisation, somewhat in the wake of those Sardinian aedos who sang and in part still sing in the squares. An oral poetry in which improvisation is all too often a passioned withdrawing into oneself, a sort of interior monologue or endophasia. It is a fact that in every part of the island and in the great languages of the island (from Logudorese to Campidanese, from Gallurese to Sassarese) there has been from the start, and growing stronger with time, a movement to reappropriate a dialect which is more and more local, provincial (but at times even diversified from town to town, from farm to farm), in sharp contradiction with those who instead maintain the necessity, which everybody is supposed to perceive, of a linguistic koinè and a single, true, great language for everyone. The history of Sardinian dialect poetry in this century stands really as proof of this proliferation of dialects, each with its own "voice," with its own spelling, unfortunately never codified, with its own original phonetics, and its own peculiar characteristics. And from the start it would have been absurd to conceive the great song, between epic and elegiac, between gnomic and näif of the poet from Barbagia Antioco Casula being written, let's say, in Sassarese. Already the title of one of his books (Boghes de Barbagia: Voices of Barbagia) immediately places a boundary to his poetry that is even physical, territorial. Not to mention the fact that the strength of almost all these poets rests precisely on their untranslatability, on their making themselves into very particular, even esoteric, linguistic islands (as happens with Lobina, but also with Casula and others). They themselves are perfectly aware that they are writing among the initiated and for the initiated, I would dare say among the faithful of the same religion of language, custom and life. In my opinion, this is the dialect poetry destined to endure, that is, the one that finds its strength in its natural, untranslatable, contrastive matrix, what the Germans call Müttersprache. Then dialect also becomes a kind of banner, a way of being oneself in the diversity of languages, in order not to get lost again, not to lose one's way in the new Babel of languages. And the dialect of poetry regains its "primitive" function of naming objects, places, feelings, a whole civilization of manners, forms, behaviors: the most civilized and honest, the most authentic and freest way to bear witness to an oppositional presence with respect to that "civilization" that has turned even language into a place of widespread pollution.
Therefore, dialect today can, In Sardinia and elsewhere, be wedded even to ecology. At any rate, the ever-growing revival of dialect poetry at every level is not without significance. In short, for many people (even distinguished poets in Italian) dialect has become a siren. "And so" - Spagnoletti and Vivaldi write (Poesia dialettale dal Rinascimento a oggi, Garzanti) what fate will accompany the present success of dialect poetry?"
The question, left hanging, cannot find easy answers. It seems clear that in this world invaded by concrete it is difficult to hear the cricket ziu Gesaru talks about, or smell the scent of sage and mint mentioned by Ruju, or feel life flowing through a country road of times past. Everything seems to move in the direction of consumerism, even of the linguistic kind, of conformism, of massification, and the language best suited to say it seems indeed to be that mixtum compositum, that mixed language Italian has become. Making predictions is not easy. "We are a little among ghosts," the poet Andrea Zanzotto (I dialetti e l'Italia, ed. Walter della Monica, Pan Editrice) said just ten years ago. Today one can only say that those ghosts had a body and a soul. The future will tell us how long they will resist this technological society advancing under the banner of the computer.

Angelo Mundula


Sardegna terra di poesia. Antologia poetica dialettale, edited by R. Carta Raspi, Cagliari 1930.
Poesia in Sardegna, edited by A. Sanna e T. Ledda, Cagliari 1969.
Il meglio della grande poesia in lingua sarda, edited by M. Pira e M. Bragaglia, Cagliari 1975.
Antologia dei poeti dialettali nuoresi, edited by G. Pinna, Cagliari 1982.
Dizionario italiano-sardo campidanese, edited by Antonio Lepori, Cagliari 1988.


P. Scanu, Sardegna, Firenze 1965.
M. Mura, "La produzione letteraria in lingua sarda dall'unità italiana alla seconda guerra mondiale," in La letteratura dialettale in Italia, edited by P. Mazzamuto, Palermo 1984.
N. Tanda, Letteratura e lingue in Sardegna, Cagliari 1984.