In the Difficult Territory of Poetry in Dialect
Gian Mario Villalta
A characteristic aspect of studies in Italian literature is represented by the need to come to terms, from the earliest centuries, with the existence and juxtaposition of different linguistic realities. It can even be said that the development of a literary tradition in Italy is characterized by a permanent diglossic tension1, which pits a normative and centralizing intent (represented by Tuscan in its subsequent codifications) against a presence of dialect voices which instead reclaim the rights of particularity, plurality and otherness. In the three volumes of his imposing work La poesia in dialetto, Franco Brevini cites Gianfranco Contini, one of the most authoritative Italian philologists and critics of the second half of the twentieth century, who reminds us that Italian literature is the "only great national literature whose dialect production is an integral, inseparable part of the remaining patrimony"2. Thus dialect gives rise to a conscious literature within an articulated system of written culture and theoretical discussions, with specific spaces and functions, not to be confused with the documents originating from oral speech and its transcriptions. I am not claiming to summarize in a few lines a century-old matter, but I am convinced that in order to understand better the critical peculiarities of twentieth-century poetry in dialect it is necessary to lay down at least certain historical references. I will not repeat what is known to everyone, from Dante's hypotheses to Bembo's codification, to the perpetuation of the "question of language" which now is, as previously mentioned, an integral part of the development of the Italian canon. I will limit myself to following another path, trying to capture a significant basic element.
The opposition between "living language" (namely everyday, lived, practical) and "literary language" (learned through instruction, nourished above all and handed down through books and by them), which is defined as the mandatory place of discussion and characteristic of the Italian language through the centuries, already contains its own limit: that practical and anti-literary function which is sought for Italian, has in fact always been carried out by dialects.
As a consequence, the use of dialects has from the start been charged with secondary meanings operating within conscious theoretical boundaries, where it has definite tasks within the sphere of "genres" (that is, to give voice to non-cultured situations: low comic, parody, farce), but also the more general task of representing corporality, materiality, the immediacy excluded from Italian literature. This way, however, even within dialects there rises a contrast between the reality of spoken speech and its literary (or rather hyper-literary) codification in the text: writing in dialect entails a reduction of the linguistic continuum to system, which is perhaps more binding – given its more restricted usage – that writing in Italian.
From its first applications, literature in dialect has had the function of representing a reality circumscribed to the parodic register, to farcical realism, playful experimentation. It becomes a conscious mask. Only at the height of the eighteenth century, exploiting a new social and cultural dynamics, Carlo Goldoni invented a space of real communication, where words meet their speakers and, redeeming the dignity of the characters from the dialect mask, gave them depth and resonance. This new approach is also found in the work of the Milanese Carlo Porta, among the best of the whole national production, which lays down a well-balanced model of esthetic realism and ethical commitment. He moreover identifies the recipient of his work as a cultured diglossic reader, who has the romantic idea of the people and a taste for the popular.
Porta's great lesson does not have a full following in its entire range of achievements.3
Dialect instead turns once again toward the identification with a genre, it forgets its own suggestive power and the task of giving voice to a world. Limited to the representation of what is "popular" (from a bourgeois point of view), during the nineteenth century it would prescribe the commonplaces of a poetic "dialectal" imagination, namely municipal, sentimental, secondary by vocation and ancillary with respect to the great cultural themes. It is true, on the other hand, that poetry in dialect, almost always conservative in themes and forms, will take it upon itself to bring well into the twentieth century the sense of continuity with the past through the attention to ordinary life, constituted by the landscape and by everyday objects, by the occasions of social life4. In this respect throughout the whole century it offers the never-revoked hypothesis of giving poetic form to the "sense of place" (Seamus Heaney's expression), namely the anthropological link between language and the material horizon which constitutes the self. This aspect persists as a subterranean force, which can be glimpsed only rarely, while often what prevails are the second-rate effects, tied to local particularism, facile folklore, a lowering of the formal quality of the texts.
Keeping in mind the factors of continuity just observed, which help us to better understand the dialectal reality as a whole (but also great personalities, such as Delio Tessa), one needs to point out, nevertheless, two new circumstances: 1) at the beginning of the century, the assimilation of dialect poetics of symbolist derivation; 2) starting with the sixties, the use of dialect as an answer to the acceleration of modernity, which threatens the entire cultural and communicative identity of the individual.
Let us try proceed in an orderly fashion:
1) With Virgilio Giotti and Biagio Marin there is a shift toward the identification of dialect with pure poetry (already present in part in the Neapolitan Di Giacomo, aided by the authoritative reading of Benedetto Croce). In the case of Giotti and Marin, of consequence is the geopolitical situation, which entails a particular orientation with respect to the relationship between language and dialect and the cultural world of which it is part.5 With a strong change in tendency, dialect becomes an instrument for exploring the poetic themes of post-symbolist poetry. From "language of the people" as it had been for nineteenth-century tradition, for Giotti it becomes ‘language of poetry," or an instrument to evoke the shadings of the soul, ephemeral voice of an absence. Marin makes of it a medium for the invention of a totally poetic universe as a sounding board for the great themes of laic spirituality in the early part of the century, according to a process of rarefaction of the real referents of the landscape and everyday life, which transforms them into emblems of absolute lyricism.
Pier Paolo Pasolini would endeavor to give a critical consciousness to these events, identifying the premises for a "neodialectality", and including himself, in the introduction to the 1952 anthology6, among the writers aware of its implications for the national literature. He sees in dialects a potential for the renewal of the themes and the voice of Italian poetry, in favor of a greater adherence to lived reality, but which would save the poetic union of diction and evocation.7 This is an aspiration which, in truth, was grounded on apparently dialectical, but in reality conflicting, cultural premises: the weakest feature of Pasolini's lesson would in fact be configuration of a thoughtfully pensive world, though dense and carnal, while a fundamental lesson would be strong awareness of the linguistic medium, and above all the possibility of extracting from everyday life, in the space between dialect and language, new occasions for poetry.
2) A few years after Pasolini's first experience, the condition of language, society, and social communication in Italy would change in significant ways. Pasolini formulated some important suggestions in order to bring the reality of dialect into the context of the great themes of culture, but what really changed the large picture was tied to some epochal events. At the center of these events, beginning in the sixties, lied a strong acceleration of the processes of social change which at first modified and then threatened the very life of the dialectal world. In certain areas of Italy the transition from an archaic and rural world to a modern technological society took place very rapidly, undermining century-old anthropological balances. As the burning house uncovers its frame, so belonging to the dialectal world at this time showed its many implications fully. The experience of diglossia then became the place of reflection and aesthetic refinement, it gave rise to a new self-narrative, it transformed ethical values. Dialect saw the objective limits of its separation from the world of the official language confused and in part abolished, it became a dissonant but "inner" voice of it, and therefore rejected the vernacular tradition, proposing strongly individual examples of linguistic selection and transcription.8
A summary of the most important core themes of the discussion about neodialect poetry should furthermore include: a) the transformation of the relationship between language and writing in the mass-media era of globalization and of the new oral communication; b)the new perception of the "mortality" of languages through the processes of acceleration of social change; c) the reworking of the concepts of identity and belonging relative to language and its memory content.
These are subjects still being discussed and very dynamic, although the context is rapidly changing.
Documenting all this through an anthology is not an easy task, given the complexity of the references in question. Further, the differences are at times profound, the similarities minimal.
Proposing a small selection, with the presence of only established poets, would be a way to confuse ideas rather than clarifying them, taking away resonance and meaning from the major poets themselves. But on the other hand an anthology, while aiming at being informative, cannot avoid making choices. It can, however, offer the utmost information while leaving the utmost freedom to the reader. In order to do this, it must renounce superimposing an overly rigid schema on things, while adopting very clear criteria of documentation, ordered by a precise idea of the reality to be studied.
Luigi Bonaffini and Achille Serrao seem to meet these requirements fully with a very simple plan: a subdivision by region which allow one to follow both local and national perspectives, with an essential profile for every poet, filled with linguistic and bibliographical references.
This Dialect Poetry of Central and Northern Italy, which completes the endeavor begun by Luigi Bonaffini with Dialect Poetry of Southern Italy (New York: Legas, 1997), has above all the function of a map. As all maps, it takes on real meaning at the moment one begins to imagine a real journey and, in a different way, when one ends it. The experience of Achille Serrao, author of Via terra9, a significant anthology of neodialect poetry, enriches furthermore the understanding of a complex, difficult reality, which cannot be approached with predefined yardsticks.
While it is true that neodialect poetry offers a "punctiform field of unrelated experiences" (Brevini), it is not true that it is better or even necessary to abandon a presentation by regional areas. There are in fact specific recognizable traits in the relationship between a language, its social usage, and its application to poetry. There are radiating centers (the now mythical Santarcangelo di Romagna, with Baldini, Fucci, Guerra, and Pedretti) and radiating figures (Zanzotto for a vast area of Venetian speech; Pasolini in the past and currently Giacomini in Friuli). There are also political and cultural conditions which have favored or favor the presence of a dialect rather than suppress it (an eastern Adriatic area has been identified, which shows features of structural continuity despite the definite linguistic diversity between Frulian and Venetian dialects).
It bears repeating that this anthology should be used as a map, possibly with the help of a geographical map (political borders do not correspond to linguistic areas), learning to read the city, the countryside or the mountain, the places of emigration and those of more rapid industrial transformation; as long as one takes note of the dates and, in the bibliography, of the publishing series, the journals, the critical comments, then relationships interwoven in this geography. And, finally, as long as one does not neglect the Italian translation, almost always a self-translation10, through which the poets come in contact with each other on a different level, which is that of the entire landscape of Italian poetry. This anthology also provides an excellent opportunity to look for possible parallel references: the work of some of the major poets in Italian (as for instance Andrea Zanzotto or Fernando Bandini) not only consists of some dialect poetry, but makes of the coexistence of Italian and dialect one of the essential elements of the work itself11. Or let us think, reading the critical bibliography, about how much dialect has contributed to the discussion over writing in Italian, offering cause for controversy and reflection, bearing on poets such as Giovanni Giudici and Milo De Angelis, for instance, and prodding them in turn to measure themselves with their "other" words. All this has happened in keeping with the cultural and artistic events that have marked the last decades of the twentieth century outside of Italy as well.
Even if the situation seems still fluid, it can be said that it is necessary to mention the names of Raffaello Baldini and Franco Loi as those representing the highest achievements of poetry in dialect in the second half of the century, for the strong tension toward a striking and dramatic diction. Just as important is the work of Amedeo Giacomini or Tolmino Baldassarri. But one should remember poets closer to everyday life such as Bertolani, Grisoni, and Bressan, those tied to the depths of memory such as Bertolino and Cecchinel. There are areas of experimentation on the great example of Ernesto Calzavara. Not to be neglected, finally, is the poetry that finds expression at the end of the century with languages adrift, such as Emilio Rentocchini's and Giovanni Nadiani's.
1 Diglossia: a particular form of bilingualism, which is present when the use of two languages not having the same cultural and social prestige alternates according to circumstances (Great Garzanti Dictionary)
2. Franco Brevini, La poesia in dialetto. Storia e testi dalle origini al Novecento, 3 vols., Milan: Mondadori, 1999, vol. I, p. XXVIII.
3. As in any case will not have followers the great poetry of G. G. Belli. Not even the refined hypothesis of Manzoni ( of Manzoni the writer, if not really of the theoretician) of an internal line of "translating" confluence, polyphonic, between dialects and the living Tuscan heritage, would concern poetry (cf. Ezio Raimondi's interpretation, La dissimulazione romanzesca, Bologna: Il Mulino, 1990).
4. Far-reaching during the century is Pascoli's influence, as it is natural to surmise, and as it is immediately clear from Pasolini's interpretation (see the publication of Pasolini's college thesis, Antologia della lirica pascoliana, edited by Marco. A. Bazzocchi, Turin: Einaudi, 1993), nut not to be forgotten is the importance of Carducci for the intonation and some thematic references.
5. It is well known that early-century Trieste uses bureaucratic German, Slavic in local commerce, it has Italian as literary aspiration and "triestino" as living language, a speech based on Venetian without a written tradition, linguistically close to Italian itself.
6. P. P. Pasolini, M. Dell'Arco (editors), Poesia dialettale del Novecento, Parma: Guanda, 1952.
7. Or foregrounds the lyrical self, while adhering to a popular aura, on the example of the Spaniard Antonio Machado.
8. Here one should place, with respect to Giotti's category of dialect as "language of poetry," the felicitous contrast of a "language of reality," cf. M. Chiesa, G. Tesio (editors), Le parole di legno. Poesia in dialetto del ‘900 italiano, Milan: Oscar Mondadori, 1984, 2 vols. In the direction of a "language of reality" is also to be taken the sense of the rejection of dialect tradition: a choice which is no longer precious but aims to connect with lived experience. One should note, furthermore, that "neodialect" poetry works outside th great dialect traditions (Milanese, Venetian, Romanesco, Neapolitan) or in peripherical forms of the latter.
9. A. Serrao, Via terra. Antologia di poesia neodialettale, Udine: Campanotto, 1992; a trilingual edition of it (Dialect-Italian-English) has recently been published: Via terra. An Anthology of Contemporary Italian Dialect Poetry, edited by A. Serrao, L. Bonaffini, and J. Vitiello, New York, Legas, 1999.
10. For the critical interpretation of this aspect of the dialect landscape, see G. M. Villalta, Autotraduzione e poesia "neodialettale," in Testo a fronte, n.7, 1992, pp. 49-63.
11. A reconstruction of the positions that concern the relationship between language and dialect spanning the entire poetic career of Andrea Zanzotto, from the early fifties to the late nineties, can be found in the selected passages of Prospezioni e Consuntivi, edited by G.M. Villalta, in QA. Zanzotto, Le poesie e prose scelte, edited by S. Dal Bianco and G. M. Villalta, Milan: Mondadori, 1999. One can follow closely some of he movements and shifts in perspective tied to the changes in the conditions of experiencing dialect and Italian during the second half of the century.