The New Dialect Poetry
Characteristics Directions Perspectives

Achille Serrao

After setting aside the persistently sterile arguments over the antagonism between common language and dialects, the latter being embraced as languages of poetry; after rejecting the proposition of denied dialectality, a formula that designates, as a sign not so much of free choice as of ideological "opposition," the attitude of those who, while possessing all the necessary instruments, reject the temptation of writing dialect poetry, "believing that the game should be played, with greater difficulty and risk, in Italian (italics mine)(1); likewise, after ridding the field of the myopic assumption according to which all too often today dialect poetry is practiced as a shortcut or a surrender to sentimentality, one can say that there has never been a creative flowering of dialect poetry like the one that has been taking place since the Seventies, so purposeful, cultured, often followed in many authors by the definitive renunciation of poetry in Italian(2); and it can be added that never as in recent years has dialect appeared and continues to appear, according to De Sanctis's prophecy, as "the new seedbed of literary languages." And never as in recent years has dialect been so widely mentioned in one breath with "expressive avant-garde" and "experimentation," in the last analysis taking for granted the elementary fact that "dialect no longer escorts poetry in Italian, as was the case with literature at the beginning of this century".(3) Only a truly intransigent and not very perceptive critical and historical position can today maintain the subalternity of dialects and, anachronistically, the preeminence of the national language.
Thus, a "new" dialect poetry: new, which naturaliter implies old experiences from which it descends through unconditioned development or through contrast or, at times, short circuits.
We can venture to read the dialect poetry of this century, accepting the widely acquired periodization - even if not completely satisfactory when it refers to the work of single authors - that is: first half of the 20th century. A turning point, 1952, is represented by the anthology Poesia dialettale del Novecento by Mario Dell'Arco and Pier Paolo Pasolini; second half of the century, to which the new literature belongs.
And one can even venture to study the phenomenon, proposing a comparison between old and new experiences, pointing out the most important general aspects, both sociological and historical, that characterizes them.

The major dialect poets of the first half of the century work, live on reality, so to speak, in a close, recognizable community, represented by the middle class of the large cities (Milan, Rome, Naples, Genoa etc.). Or of the great metropolitan areas such as Veneto, thus continuing a century-long literature in dialect. Such poets, while "writing" in a dialect which is a "spoken" dialect, count on a specific audience, an organic audience that is identifiable with that very middle class. The dialect poetry of the first half of the century, grounded in an absorbing realism, thus continues traditional poetry and reaches its highest expression in the axis Milan-Rome-Naples, often using dialect only as a tool for musical expressionism, even if of high artistic caliber, as in the case of Salvatore Di Giacomo, or for folkloric chronicles with consolatory aims, as in Ferdinando Russo and Raffaele Viviani, or at times elegiac, in Eduardo de Filippo, and rooted in the fable, in Trilussa.
As the "voice" of a community - the one identified in the middle class of the great urban areas - the poetry of the first fifty years of the 20th century uses potentially "choral" dialects: in the sphere of that community the poet in turn works on the firm assumption that he is able to communicate with well-identified recipients.

On a more strictly operational level, a large part of the dialect poetry of the early twentieth century looks for a paradigm, more or less understood or often misunderstood, in the poetry of Pascoli, which will ultimately become, in some areas (for instance Abruzzo) thanks to the models set by D'Annunzio, a persistent feature of their common aim and recognition.
The anthology Poesia dialettale del Novecento, edited by Pasolini and Dell'Arco in 1952, but even before (1942) the volume Poesie a Casarsa, also by Pasolini , are considered the starting point of the "awareness of a turning point that had taken place among the most perceptive dialect poets, which only needed to be recognized as "refined" and thus be defined in order to reveal the whole measure of its worth."(4)
It was a matter of catching the dimly perceived lines of tension toward a poetry that would become "adult and finally high, so as to count ultimately more as a chapter of twentieth-century European literature than as part of surreptitious local literature,"(5) refining the dialect medium in order to endow it with a tone that it had lacked until then (Pasolini again).
Two observations: Friuli, and later the Veneto area in general (the names are well known: Giotti, Marin, Noventa, Zanzotto etc.; Zanzotto commented on the sublime naiveté of dialect) provide lessons that are so exemplary as to function as analogical reference models for the rest of dialect literature.
The linguistic medium is overloaded with responsibility, it must, as we said before, acquire a tone it lacks if dialect literature can aspire to become part of a European twentieth century, rather than remaining relegated to the confines of local regionalism.
Pasolini's request and its theoretical aftermath determine the new "role," a new coin for dialects and dialect poetry.
First of all, it is a matter of agreeing, after Pasolini's experiences and Tonino Guerra's I scarabo, on the birth of a new literature that shows signs of wanting to free itself from the popular, impressionistic, folkloric tradition, in order to turn - almost to devote itself - to "cultural" aims, mostly expressionistic, to represent itself as a possibility of poetic practice no less cultured than poetry in the common language.
The continuum of experiences with the tradition that had characterized literature in verse in the first half of the century is interrupted; now poetry is expressed in marginal dialects, extremely poor and in some cases totally devoid of any literary tradition; the poet writes in a dialect which is less and less "spoken," he is forced to come to grips with the loss of speakers caused by the leveling assault of the mass media. He can agree with the observation that "the well-being of written dialects is no longer (as in the past) a function of the well-being of spoken dialects, but rather of their sickness."(6) In reality, there is the problem of establishing whether he ever looked or looks at those speakers as possible recipients, taking into account the present planetary circulation of culture.
Dialect now becomes a "precious," "refined" medium, better suited to poetry's need for essential diction; from a language of nature it becomes a language of culture, it is rediscovered in the individual self - and often in the (re)invention of the individual self (as in the case of Loi, Pierro) - in short, it is deeply internalized, whether or not chosen, as some maintain, in opposition to the common language which has become a trite, conventional instrument.

Mengaldo notes(7): "Keeping in mind the relationship between the stylistic position of the poet and the linguistic position of his dialect ...while once there was essentially only one way of being a dialect poet, now the ways are many and even in contrast with one another." Mengaldo's statement entails first of all that at present the existence of a common heritage uniting the work of neodialect poets be denied. The same sentence states, by underlining in the second place a plurality of expressive "modes" (also the result of the cultural background, of a culture which is not merely poetic, often European or even international, which the neodialect poets use in various ways in their individual work; and also the result of the rhetorical-stylistic experience derived from poetry in the common language) that it is necessary to include among contemporary poetic modes the one that adopts, as in Calzavara's case, a mixture of languages and other typical strategies of the neo-avantgarde, in praesentia of the chosen dialect.
An attempt to put some order in the currently very fluid material is made in the present anthology, edited in 1992 for Campanotto Editore in Udine.
Among the criteria that have guided the selections, in an effort also to satisfy the need to "represent" the employable dialects (but one must consider, along with the metropolitan dialects, the myriad idiomatic variations present in all the linguistic areas of Italy), more important than strictly critical and socio-anthropological selection criteria, although so promising for analytical elaboration, was a personal reason of a psychological nature: being in tune with the work of many of the authors included, or out of sync with others, in any case motivated by the considerable ideological novelty and the profound, alarmed search for expressive values manifested by the texts.
The arrangement of the entries, moreover, follows a double parameter: the first, generational - date of birth from 1930; the second, geographical - regional origin.
It has been noted more than once that from a sociological perspective the generational criterion is usually adopted in the study of homogeneously constituted groups, well aware of the fact that there is often a leader (or some type of model) operating in them.
It is true, Via terra does not underscore this aspect in any way. In the Foreword to the Italian edition of the volume, we merely pointed out that the choice of temporal demarcation was not accidental, and we added: "In the work of those born in 1930 and of the poets of subsequent generations, the traits that consent us to trace an outline of the new poetry in dialect have become better defined and more marked, that is: the definitive rejection of the classical themes of the popular world; the testimony constantly offered by the written texts - with different stylistic choices, to be sure, and harking to different poetics - of the laceration of the self; the use of a personal dialect on the part of the poets with the same freedom with which they often utilize one of the endless codes of the plurilinguistic contemporary universe; finally, the same syntax and meter as poetry in Italian."
With the authority and experience of many authors, presented for years in numerous books, this collection ultimately assembles the work of very young poets with only one significant achievement to their credit, from which one can legitimately expect further developments , or of poets who for years have been writing in Italian but never in dialect, who make their debut in dialect with few verses of such intensity as to suggest an evolution toward new directions and in the use of the particular idiom to which they are committed.
No indication of leaders, of guides. But how can one not consider implicit the work of Pasolini, Pierro, Zanzotto etc., from whom no doubt stem the accomplishments with which the neodialect experience of subsequent generations identifies?
Whether Pasolini, Pierro, Zanzotto etc. are to be considered as guides or leaders, models, or merely points of reference, is of little importance. What counts is rather the fact that they have marked a turning point destined to affect even the leaderless developments of neodialect poetry.

With respect to the geographical criterion tied to the region, it has been observed that it tends to group together experiences with very different backgrounds and results. What relationship, it has been asked, can be established between the poetic language and themes of the corregional dialect poets Maffia and Marino (Calabria), Angiuli and Granatiero (Apulia), Serrao, Di Natale and Sovente (Campania), Spadoni and Nadiani (Romagna) or Loi, Grisoni and Pandini (Lombardy), Scataglini and Mancino (The Marches), etc.?
And the comment becomes more relevant as soon as one observes that neodialect always tends to assume individual characteristics that ultimately complicate the already extremely variegated map of dialectal idioms, intensely splintered over a territory that has even sub-provincial linguistic divisions, especially in areas with a scarce written tradition, which necessitate a system of signs based on an often harsh phonetic underpinning.

One must then consider arbitrary the geographical criterion selected, taking into account the exclusive and absorbing significance that the single poetic personalities have assumed and keep assuming in the development of the phenomenon of "neodialect poetry" of the second half of the century. This conclusion is buttressed by a recent observation by Franco Brevini: "A representation of the current poetic geography must of necessity renounce regional lines, in favor of a dotted field of unrelated experiences."(8)
In the presence of such a field, of an indisputable "dissemination" of poetics, it is difficult to trace the lines of development of contemporary dialect poetry, that might guide us in the thicket of voices that marks the end of this millennium with very diverse writing practices. It will be necessary, for now, to limit ourselves to paying attention to works in progress, to the individual handling of the various dialects, and rely on the autonomy and variety of the poetics, so as to be able to conclude tomorrow with the difficulties that derive from anything "new."
But can the editor of this anthology venture the notion that the geographical criterion be proposed simply as a first, indispensable guide for the reader?

A. S.

December 1994

Notes (to add to the Preface)
For an exhaustive sociological, historical and literary overview of dialect poetry in the last two decades, see the major critical texts: F. Brevini, Le parole perdute: dialetti e poesia del nostro secolo (Turin: Einaudi, 1990); and D. Maffia, La barriera semantica: sulla poesia in dialetto del Novecento (Rome: Edizioni Scettro del Re, 1996).
The criteria determining the composition of this anthology did not, in its first edition, include Molise. But research on the state of the art in this region has revealed that there is a dearth of dialect among young Molisan writers and that Giuseppe Jovine and Giose Rimanelli, members of an earlier generation, continue to write good poetry in the dialect. Thus, although both poets were born before 1930, given their national and international standing as authors of prose as well as verse, they have been included as representatives of Molise in this present edition of the anthology.
(1) See, for example, the anthology Poesia dialettale del Molise--testi e critica, Luigi Bonaffini and Giambattista Faralli, eds. (Isernia: Marinelli, 1993).
1. 1.P.V. Mengaldo, "Problemi della poesia dialettale italiana del '900," in Poesia dialettale e poesia in lingua nel Novecento, on the work of Marco Pola, proceedings of the Trent Seminar, October 1993, edited by Anna Dolfi, Milan: Scheiwiller, 1994. 2. 2.Not for the love of argument, but of clarity, we think an answer should be given to the systematic critical practice that indulges in saddling the transition from poetry in the common code to poetry in one of the dialect codes (as is the case with so many poets) with the a sense of guilt-ridden betrayal, for the sake of an unjustified and unjustifiable change of direction.
Those detractors opposed to any kind of change, and particularly to this one, considered laden
with special responsibilities, have expressed themselves as follows: "One cannot justify the fact
that an author, after a more or less long militancy in Italian, suddenly discovers dialect and assumes it as the expressive instrument of his poetry. Such an assumption, moreover, implies a
creative regression - the defenders of the national language go on saying - or even a regression
to non-knowledge."
One can attempt a defense in these terms : "Dialects represent one of the two sides of the same coin; the coin, of course, is the linguistic patrimony of our country. And not of ours alone, must we be reminded? (even if here it has particular characteristics). There are well-known examples of minor languages coexisting with the English or French mother tongues. It must be added that dialect, an oral and choral language, is the true language of Italians, and it can also boast a historical precedence in use and expressiveness with respect to the common language.
Italian, as everyone knows, arrived later, learned in the schools where the pupil himself (and the teacher, why not) came in with his own rooted dialect.
The effect over time: upon an oral and choral language was superimposed a literary language which has contributed - for the sake and in the name of a common comprehension- linguistic communication - to reducing and misleading the semantic density, the lexical richness of dialect, to break in the long run its bond with the humus of which it is verbal evidence.
The sociological-linguistic implications: the progressive disappearance of some dialects and, at best, the survival of hybrid idiomatic forms, still accepted because useful in meeting communicative needs. The dialect parish, then, is crumbling. And if it crumbles, it must be definitively torn down, ahead of time and eliminating obstacles. But this parish is part of the family patrimony, of its history: what if we tried to brace it up? The above-mentioned regression to non-knowledge that its use would entail would not be an impediment to restructuring. Rather, the opposite is true: to know one's dialect is to know one's history, and one's profound history with all the implications related to a socio-anthropological, earthly depth.
And what if dialect poetry, among the other charges of its nature, contributed - represented a determining instrument - to this knowledge?
3. 3.G. Spagnoletti, "Il balzo della poesia dialettale da Loi a Naldini," in Lunario nuovo, n. 51.
4. 4.L. Reina, "Sulla poesia neodialettale," in Percorsi di poesia, Napoli: A. Guida Editore, 1993.
5. 5.A. Giacomini, "Appunti per una storia non conformista della letteratura friulana dalle origini ai nostri giorni," in Il Belli, n.1, 1991.
6. 6.P. V. Mengaldo, op. cit., p.20.
7. 7.op. cit., p.19.
8. 8."La linea romagnola nella poesia dialettale del Novecento," in La poesia dialettale romagnola del '900, edited by Gualtiero De Santi, Rimini: Maggioli Editore, 1994.