We have reached a moment in history
when we realize that man's imagination needs
all the languages of the world.
The first notion one has take into account when facing the subject of dialects is obviously
their geographical spacing. One should take care, however, that in such a perspective literary
geography does not remain an abstract "mental place," but is rather a way of explaining the
dynamics of a situation; a dynamics that, as a result, cannot help but reveal itself to be historical as
well.1 The key to reading literature in dialect, then, should not be one based on an isolationist
provincialism, as certain idealist and later postmodernist critics have tried to suggest.
It is understandable, especially when looking at it from the outside, how dialect literature
might at first glance appear as a sort of "Arcadia" grounded in provincialism, inspired by a
reactionary desire for eccentricity and by the "spirit of flight." Still, anyone willing to consider the
problem and take a closer, in-depth look, cannot help but notice that the issue is not reducible to
these terms, just as it is not reducible to the question of the authentic and the original. It is
certainly true that the flight into individual memory or the "private" language of small
communities is part of the rejection of the authority of the "super-individual" language, as it is
often called these days.2
Dialect poetry, heeding Contini's warning not to attribute an epistemological value to such
a category, must be inscribed in a dynamics that puts the place at the center of a web of
relationships, recontextualizing it in its own diachrony. If this type of poetry, with the emergence
of a "national literature," had begun to develop under the banner of an exoticism which could take
on different meanings (it could constitute an attempt to reconnect with cultured regional trends
before Unification, or to find a "new lymph" after the Risorgimento), the final outcome was a
belatedness limited to local color and the narrow regional sketch.
In the same way, if dialect as regression could have a function as a ritual of memory, once
the descent has been accomplished the "language of the past," freed from any tie, seemed to have
lost its purpose. Then there are three possible routes: on the one hand there is the "magmatic"
vitalism of a pre-logical language; on the other the reduction to a purely antiquarian, consolatory
exercise; finally, the possibility of finding a place again within a public, i.e. open, discourse.
The use of dialect, in fact, is not rooted in a "cosmic" dimension of the private, just as it is
not (nor can it be) a metaphor of the otherness, more dandy than revolutionary: if violating the
normal use of language has always been the objective of modern poetry, the negation of a
linguistic norm and thus of communication tout court results in a nihilistic reduction of the word
to pure sound value. Moreover, being rooted in local custom and language is often accompanied
by the trite folklore of rural nostalgia and, what is worst, an almost Homeric poetic mode of
expressing everyday life. Frankly, all this appears "premodern" rather than "postmodern."
At any rate, dialect itself today is something very different from the image of natural
language or inner language: in the present situation, in fact, dialect rarely identifies a community
of speakers defined in a geographical or social sense. There are a few exceptions, in progressively
more limited areas, while in small and big cities there is the tendency to speak a mix of dialects
shading off into regional uses of Italian. As is happening to speech, dialect poetry also reveals a
composite nature, not only with regard to vocabulary, as we shall see. This language retains the
characteristic most specific to poetry, that is, the capacity for self-reflection and therefore a
degree of self-awareness, lucidity and coolness far removed from Orphic and primitive passions.
Thus we have the recent definition of "neodialect poetry," which aims at indicating a
demarcation which is not merely chronological: in this poetry dialect is made not only of
expressiveness and phonic color, tradition or linguistic identity, but it is, as Mann suggested, the
atmosphere of a place. "Breath of the place,"3 one might say; a place which, however, is always
defined, as I have tried to explain, by its own spatial and temporal dynamics with its own horizon
and with totality.4 That is, dialect does not identify with the community of dialect speakers, but it
contemplates and even requires the presence of the official language and its relationship to
culture. The diglossia characteristics of this poetry thus determines, through such co-presence
(but balanced in cultural, social and emotional terms according to a hierarchical relationship), a
new way of being for the poetic word in dialect. And it even posits a "criticism of the linguistic
difference," based on the historicity of linguistic coexistence, shifting the emphasis from "values"
to experience.5 One can say, essentially, if I can borrow from an authoritative voice, that the
places are received as moments of "world-totality," which can be arrived at according to criteria
which are not "laws" so much as "invariances"
Turning to the geography of dialects in Emilia-Romagna, one must appreciate their great
variety (in this anthology are represented the dialects of Parma, Modena, the coast and the
interior), also underscored by ancient commentators; and yet, at the same time, a tendency toward
a sort of koiné. Mentioning such a tendency I do not refer to the hypothesis suggested for archaic
epochs by Monaci, according to which in the centers of culture (Bologna, for instance) the
"volgare illustre" was born from the meeting of students. I am talking about that particular
exchange between territory and institutions, city and country, centers and surrounding areas,
which becomes clear in a map that takes into account both spatial and chronological extensions.6
An exchange characterized, then, more by difference and exclusion, by participation and
integration. And thus by listening: to language and the language of the Other.
Following this path, which forces us into a "double step," that is, to move in time as well
as space (something familiar to those who travel through places "drawn" along a road that runs
across the epochs as well), we have to come to grips with a literary stance that is hard to
understand within the limits of its essential trait, be it a genius loci or a style, a school, and which
never fails to superimpose the surreal (not only naïf) vein of the province on the trends of the
Let us then take as "founding figure" of dialect poetry in Emilia-Romagna Enrico Stuffer,
nicknamed Fulminànt, born in 1861 in Modena and an exponent of the age of the decried regional
sketch. Nevertheless, the fact that he also was very active in the local cultural scene attests to an
acknowledgment of collective roots that goes beyond traditional parochialism, but feeds instead
on an ironic self-awareness.
Renzo Pezzani, forty years older, seems instead more inclined towards a longing for his
native land: anyway, those were the years of totalitarianism, of the world conflict and the post-war period, in which history weighs heavily on the lives of people. Moreover, even the idyll is
veiled with irony, and its festive aura becomes desperate, in a manner that perhaps shows traces of
During those years, as in those that followed, one can notice an actual tendency to use
dialect poetry as a sort of barrier with which to demarcate a marginal space, a happy island safe
from the violence of history. But those same years, based on an attitude exemplified by Zavattini,
mark the beginning of an experience destined to overcome any kind of separatism, and to place
dialect at the center of a web of relationships, in what could approximately be defined as the
"literarization" phase. The protagonist is the generation of those born in the twenties, like Tonino
Guerra:8 the particular modernity of Raffaele Baldini, also a member of the Sarcangelo triad,
stands out in the recent collections, La nàiva (1982) and above all Furistìr, which display an
evolution from comic forms deviating from the norm (the stereotype of the "fool" as poetic voice)
to the "normality of everyday neurosis."9 Thus the regional topos combines with the neurotic-visionary landscape of the neoexperimentalists.
The realism of a language rooted in an easy and direct referentiality, then, is not mere
expressive realism. Poetry, at any rate, does not limit itself to being a mere versification of speech,
it also entails an informative quality superior to its everyday usage, more mediated and refined, as
a departure from conventions. At this point one cannot even speak of "naiveté" with respect to
the colloquial tone, which is instead narrative tension.10 In this context it should be noted how
writings that present themselves as direct "true accounts" and documents of "low culture," which
would then exclude the literary language from its intertextuality, often mask a rhetoric of
dissimulation: such works evidently are not outside literature, and are created in the tension
between dialect and Italian, low and high culture.11
Tolmino Baldassarri offers in his work tangible proof of how poetry in those years
wavered between tradition and literarization.12 In his more recent work, though, like Ombra di
luna (Udine: Campanotto, 1993), one can see that the degree of literariness is increasing, in
keeping with a general tendency:13 the fundamental trait remains the resistance against time and
the quest for concealed traces.
Giovanni Nadiani takes part in the universe of voices with the use of different media, and
his collection TIR (Faenza: Moby Dick, 1994) is accompanied by a CD. In the preface to the
volume, Gianni D'Elia underscores its innovative strength, which in fact is not limited the type of
material chosen to communicate, but it involves the expressive level and, above all, the type of
gaze to which poetry entrusts itself. It chooses to express the disorder of experience, the
desolation of the collective imagination, yet it does not claim to be an explanation of reality, but
plays the role of witness (in keeping with the themes of dialect poetry, thus revealing a continuity
with his own tradition); that is to say, an observation, a gaze, as "act of seeing" more convincing
(in poetry) than a "general theory of seeing." This is due to the narrative bent that had always
been the paramount characteristic of dialect poetry, and which also marks much of contemporary
Italian poetry: the stream of consciousness composes an order, a narrative from chaos.14
This solution confirms dialect's inclination toward contamination even with the language
of "high" culture that I tried to point out at the beginning of our journey in Emilia-Romagna, and
which should be no doubt linked to the ancient presence of centers of culture such as the
University of Bologna and the academies of various other cities. Two fairly obvious examples
from the past could be of Carlo Goldoni, according to whom in the eighteenth century in
Bologna Latin was spoken even by women, and understood by all,15 and Giovanni Pascoli, for his
very singular mixture of cultured Italian, Latin, and dialect, under the banner of what was at any
rate multilinguism and not polyglossia.16
To conclude, it must be noted how, in the general emphasis given the reader in the poetics
of the late twentieth century, at a certain point dialect poetry too has become aware that it can no
longer presuppose a model reader (in the specific case, the natural geographical receiver), and that
it must instead, like any artistic product, create him.17 With the adoption of the neodialect point
of view, and thus the perspective of diglossia, dialect poetry requires an activity on the part of the
reader, which is not interpretive in a critical sense, but concentrates on language. The paratextual
diglossia that appears in all these texts is in fact substantially (and profoundly) different from an
intratextual diglossia: with the practice of self-translation it never entails the co-presence of two
languages within the same text, but it involves the clash between two linguistic competencies, two
"systems of reference."18
Besides the contact with spoken languages, this inclusive structure often serves as an
attempt to combine a popular tradition, to which it is closely connected, with the new forms of the
popular, bearers of a different and unprecedented structure of the collective imagination. Orality,
then, presents itself as "movement towards the other," "corporeal poetics of the sound, the gaze,
the gesture, in a spatiality reconquered for concreteness,"19 or in other words interactivity.20 It is
the equivalent, going back to the linguistic aspect, to a participation of the text to the context of
collective discourses and to a much vaster universe of communication than before, to the sharing
of a linguistic space that rejects the sublime in favor of listening and of a largely horizontal
responsiveness.21 If primitive speech, like perhaps some oral poetry today based on the trace left
by the participation in the event, was rather characterized by a series of traits (conservatism,
redundancy, emphasis) indicating the separateness of microcommunities,22 what is presently
defined as orality (or rather neo-orality) represents an opening of the poetic towards other types
of sources, stimuli, and procedures.
To conclude then with Edouard Glissant, the rejection of monolinguism also entails
eschewing the monolinguistic defense of one's "own" language, in favor of a global "solidarity"
against standardization.23 The answer is a "Poetics of Relation" which is not a poetics of magma,
of indifference, of the neutral: it does not presuppose a contamination or a coexistence, but the
"presence of the languages of the world in the use of one's own," in a dialogue between diversity
and rest of the world which is never exclusive or merely dialectic.24 And it is precisely this form of
openness that distinguishes neodialect poetry: as Creole retains the traces of many languages in its
lexical and syntactic memory, so too at the romance origins of Italian vernaculars and in their
development through the centuries (in their speaking to one another and with the "dominant"
language) one can find similar riches. It remains to be seen how vital they have remained, how
much they have continued to live through relationships of exchange: that is, if they have been able
to find a new "identity-relationship" in place of the "nationalistic" "identity-root."
1Historical reviews and general perspectives, besides in Brevini's famous Le parole perdute, can
be found in G. Spagnoletti and C. Vivaldi, Poesia dialettale dal Rinascimento a oggi, Milan:
Garzanti, 1991; F. Piga, La poesia dialettale del Novecento, Padua-Milan: Piccin-Vallardi, 1991.
From a specifically regional viewpoint: G. De Santi (editor), La poesia dialettale romagnola del
Novecento, Proceedings of the Conference (Santarcangelo, December 14-16, 1989), Rimini:
2Cf., for example, A. Carrera, "Alternative alla storia," in D. S. Cervigni (editor), Italy 1991. The
Modern and Postmodern, in Annali d'Italianistica, v. 9, Chapel Hill: North Carolina University
Press, 1991, pp. 106-123; and the trenchant G. Mari, "Postmoderno e democrazia," Ibidem, pp.
3The definition appears in the interview titled "The writer and the breath of the place," in É.
Glissant, Introduction à une poétique du divers, Paris: Gallimard, 1996, Ital. trans. Poetica del
diverso, Rome: Meltemi, 1998, pp. 103-116, where a subtle distinction is made between
polyglossia and multilinguism.
4G. M. Villalta, "Autotraduzione e poesia 'neodialettale," in Testo a fronte, 1992, n. 7, pp. 49-63;
E. Ragni, "Dialetto e poesia neodialettale. Quattro domande a Franco Brevini, in Rivista di Studi
Italiani, 1994, n.1, pp. 121-129.
5G. M. Villalta, "I dialetti della poesia," in Baldus, V, n. 1, 1995, pp. 13-22. On the redefinition
of the relationship between "dominant" and "dominated" languages, even more telling is
Glissant's point of view, Poetica del diverso, cit., p. 33.
6I am referring to G. M. Anselmi and A. Bertoni, Una geografia letteraria tra Emilia e Romagna,
Bologna: Clueb, 1997, and in particular to E. Raimondi, "Prefazione: un possibile percorso," ivi,
7Cf. R. Luperini, Il Novecento, II. Turin: Loescher, 1980, p. 665. On Pezzani also see G.
Marchetta (editor), L'inquieta speranza. Antologia poetica parmigiana, Parma: Battei, 1991.
8Cf. G. Contini, "Excursus continuo su Tonino Guerra," in T. Guerra, I bu. Poesia romagnole,
Milan: 1972, pp. 7-15.
9F. Brevini, introduction to R. Baldini, Furistìr, Turin: Einaudi, 1988., p. VI: also cf. Brevini in "Il
dialetto come lingua dell'estraneità," in Profili letterari, 1992, n. 2, pp. 26-33.
10G. L. Barbieri, "Le forme del contenuto nella poesia in dialetto,' in Otto/Novecento, 1994, n. 1,
pp. 59-79. A. Stussi, "La letteratura romagnola: appunti filologici e linguistici," now in Lingua,
dialetto e letteratura, Turin: Einaudi, 1993.
11Cf. for instance Z. G. Baranski, "Dante nell'opera narrativa di Luigi Meneghello," in Studi
Novecenteschi, XI, n. 27, June 1984, pp. 81-102. Also on the opposition of "carnival" and literary
dimensions cf. E. Giachery, Dialetti in Parnaso, Pisa: Giardini, 1992.
12See A. Foschi and E. Pezzi (editors), La maschera del dialetto. Tolmino Baldassarri e la poesia
dialettale contemporanea, Ravenna: Longo, 1988, with essays by F. Brevini, F. Loi and C.
13Greater complexity of contemporary poetry: F. Brevini, "Come ho studiato i dialetti
contemporanei," in AA. VV, È possibile fare storia della cultura contemporanea?, in L'Asino
d'oro, 1990, n. 2, pp. 165-169. Also on dialect and contemporary poetry: V. Moretti, Le ragioni
di una scrittura, introduction by U. Vignuzzi, edited by E. Di Carlo, Pescara: D'Incecco, 1989.
14P. Civitareale, "Cinque poeti in romagnolo," cit., p. 53. On the question of "narrative" the
references are many and complex: from A. Berardinelli, La poesia verso la prosa, Turin: Bollati
Boringheri, 1994 (cited by the same G. M. Villalta, "I dialetti della poesia," in Baldus, cit., p. 19)
to the observations of M. Onofri, E. Albinati, N. Lorenzini, R. Manica, F. Buffoni in M. I. Gaeta
and G. Sica (editors), La parola ritrovata, Proceedings of the national conference (Rome,
September 22-23, 1993), Venice: Marsilio, 1995, pp. 81, 92, 99, 121, 148); but also V. Bonito, Il
gelo e lo sguardo, Bologna: Clueb, 1996.
15C. Goldoni, Opere, edited by G. Ortolani, XVI, Milan: Mondadori, 1956, p. 250.
16In this regard remains unsurpassed the analysis of A. Traina, Il latino del Pascoli. Saggi sul
bilinguismo poetico, Florence: Le Monnier, 1971.
17G. L. Barbieri, "Le forme del contenuto nella poesia in dialetto,", in Otto/Novecento, cit., 1994,
n. 1, p. 70.
18See also G. M. Villalta, "La voce nel testo poetico," in Il Verri, cit., p. 77.
19N. Lorenzini, "La voce nel testo poetico," in Il Verri, cit., p. 77.
20 G. Majorino, "Poesia contemporanea. Campionario con figure,"in Aut-Aut, XVIL, n. 260-261,
March-June, pp. 79-105.
21 W. J. Ong, Interfaces of the Word, Ithaca: Cornell U. Press, 1977; It. tr. Interfacce della
parola, Bologna: Il Mulino, 1989, p. 46, speaks of "mass languages like vocabularies."
22Id., Orality and Literacy. The technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Methuen,
1982, It. tr. Oralità e scrittura, Bologna: Il Mulino, 1986, p. 65.
23 Poetica del diverso, cit., p. 33.
24Ibidem, pp. 105.
F. Schürr, La voce della Romagna, Ravenna: Edizioni del Girasole, 1974.
N. Pedretti, "Poesia romagnola del dopoguerra, in Lingua dialetto poesia, 1976.
G. Quondamatteo and G. Bellosi (editors), Cento anni di poesia dialettale romagnola, Imola:
G. Bellosi and G. Quondamatteo, Le parlate dell'Emilia e della Romagna, Florence: Edizioni del
A. Foschi and E. Pezzi (editors), La maschera del dialetto. Tolmino Baldassarri e la poesia
dialettale contemporanea, Ravenna: Longo, 1988.
R. Turci (editor), La poesia in dialetto di Romagna oggi, special issue of Il lettore di provincia,
79, December 1990.
G. De Santi, "La poesia dialettale romagnola tra memoria e moderno,' in Pelagos, 1, July 1991,
--. (editor) La poesia dialettale romagnola del Novecento, Rimini: Maggioli, 1994
L. Benini Sforza, "Elementi per una storia della poesia dialettale del secondo Novecento in
Romagna. Gli anni 1946-1980," in Trattti, 36, summer 1994, pp. 83-88.
--. "Per una storia della cultura dialettale romagnola," in Memoria e recherche, 5, July 1995, pp.