What is Italian-American Poetry?

Italian Americana journalIf Italian-American poetry can be said to exist as a meaningful part of American literature, it is only as a transitional category. Some kinds of ethnic or cultural consciousness seem more or less permanent. A contemporary Catholic poet, for example, is intrinsically no less Catholic than one from the last century. Nor will an African-American writer today experience the dual allegiances of black identity less deeply than did his or her predecessors. But each new generation of Italian-Americans finds its cultural links with the old country more tenuous. As the Little Italies disappear, and families disperse to the suburbs, the descendants of Italian immigration gradually merge their once sharply differentiated ethnic identity in mainstream America. Values change subtly but significantly. Intermarriage becomes the rule rather than the exception. If a third generation Italian-American speaks Italian, he or she usually learned it not in the kitchen but in college.Some recent critics have analyzed the position of Italian-American poets in sociological terms borrowed from black literary historians. They portray Italian-American writers as individuals whose ethnic consciousness alienate them from the mainstream culture. Although this approach affords some insights, it is often misleading. The Italian-American writer’s identity is rooted in history not race. It originated in one central event—the massive immigration of poor Italians to the United States between 1870 and 1930. The cultural shock waves radiating from this historical upheaval (which was America’s largest European immigration in the past century) formed the Italian-American literary consciousness. The concept of an Italian-American poet is, therefore, most useful to describe first and second generation writers raised in the immigrant subculture. It has been these writers who have used the immigrant experience as their imaginative point of departure.

The immigrant’s literary heritage was usually confined to the lively traditions of a local dialect. The poetry of the early arrivals—and there is a great deal of engaging work—was written mostly in Southern dialects. This heritage remains almost entirely unexplored, except by a few dedicated scholars working outside the academic mainstream.Although Italian-American poetry began in 1805 with the arrival of Mozart’s librettist, the Venetian writer Lorenzo da Ponte, it took another century and a half for enough significant authors to appear to claim the attention of the English-speaking public. The social and cultural barriers that early aspiring writers faced were enormous. Not surprisingly, few poets managed to overcome them. Most immigrants came from the destitute classes of Southern Italy. Poorly educated, often illiterate, few knew Toscano, the standard literary dialect of written Italian (based on the Florentine language of Petrarch and Boccaccio). The immigrant’s literary heritage was usually confined to the lively traditions of a local dialect. The poetry of the early arrivals—and there is a great deal of engaging work—was written mostly in Southern dialects. This heritage remains almost entirely unexplored, except by a few dedicated scholars working outside the academic mainstream.

The first generation of Italian-American writers to work in English made their most important contributions neither in poetry nor fiction but in radical politics. Carlo Tresca and Arturo Giovannitti, for example, were both published poets, but today they are remembered for their social activism. Their political journalism, which passionately addressed the timeless concerns of equality and justice, remains more vital than their verse. Selden Rodman boldly reprinted Bartolomeo Vanzetti’s last speech to the court as verse in his 1938 New Anthology of Modern Verse, and Vanzetti’s proud words spoken in slightly awkward English sustain the pressure of transcription. Few poems by his Italian-American contemporaries still read so well.

The best early Italian-American poetry deals with the excitement and disillusionment of life in this “new-found land.” The immigrant Emanuel Carnevali (1897-1942) became the first Italian writer to make a significant, if short-lived, impact on modern American poetry. Supporting himself in Greenwich Village by shoveling snow and washing dishes, Carnevali enjoyed a special celebrity among populist Modernist poets like William Carlos Williams and Carl Sandburg. He published only one book, Tales of a Hurried Man (1925), but it established him in avant-garde circles. Harriet Monroe, the founding editor of Poetry, eventually brought him out to Chicago to work on her magazine, but he was soon stricken with encephalitis. Impoverished, disillusioned, and disabled, he returned to his homeland where he wrote, “O Italy, O great boot, / don’t kick me out again!” Poets like Carnevali, however, survive today mainly as historical figures—examples of the developing ethnic consciousness of Italian-American writers. They have at best modest claims to the attention of general readers of poetry.

The first Italian-American poet to make a permanent contribution to our literature was John Ciardi (1916-1986). An indefatigable critic, anthologist, translator, educator, journalist, and public spokesman, Ciardi became one of mid-century American poetry’s dominant tastemakers—an unprecedented position for an Italian-American. He also became modestly wealthy from poetry—another rare accomplishment about which Ciardi, who had been raised without a father in terrible poverty, exhibited the unabashed pride typical of his first-generation contemporaries. Ciardi remains the model Italian-American poet and man of letters. He has had many followers, though none quite so versatile. Ciardi not only captured the distinctive perspective and themes of Italian-American experience; he portrayed them in memorable language. Here is the opening of “Firsts,” a poem that simultaneously plays with echoes from the English and Italian literary traditions:

At forty, home from traveled intention,
I could no longer speak my mother’s dialect.

I had been in Italy rinsing my vowels.
She had been in Medford, Massachusetts

thickening her tongue on English crusts.
She had become a patois. What tongue was I?

I understood what I heard her say.
Could say it over and remember—ah, yes—

a taste like cooked wine-lees mushed with snow,
our winter dolce once. And how many years

not thought of, not forgotten? A taste
that slipped my tongue. Would I still like it, I doubt?

Today there are so many interesting poets of Italian descent writing that it is difficult to draw any narrow generalizations about their wide-ranging work. And yet amid all the diversity there remains some common points of resemblance. I do not pretend great scholarship in the field, but I have been reading my poetic compaesani now for several decades (most recently in a professional capacity as poetry editor of Italian Americana), and I have seriously pondered the problematic issues of expressing our ethnic and cultural identity in literature. Many things need to be said—even if only in provisional terms—so let me venture a few preliminary observations.

In Italian culture one often notices two conflicting impulses—one to preserve the richness of the past, the other to reject it in search of the new. The same dialectic between tradition and revolution exists in Italian-American poetry. Surveying writers of roughly the same generation, one finds both enlightened traditionalists (like Jerome Mazzaro or Lewis Turco) and feisty iconoclasts (like Gregory Corso or Diane di Prima). Sometimes one sees both impulses in a single writer like Felix Stefanile or Paul Violi. What one rarely sees is aesthetic complacency. Italians take their art seriously. The traditionalists tend to be as passionate and argumentative as the revolutionaries. Ciardi’s engaged and combative approach to poetry no longer appears to have been a purely personal trait.

Despite the stylistic diversity, one does notice certain underlying themes that unite the work of first and second generation writers. I would cite four central experiences that haunt —either overtly or subtly—the Italian-American poetic imagination. The first is poverty. The poets and their families have usually known genuine privation and penury both here and in Europe. This bitter memory informs their views of America and themselves. Their original status as economic and social outsiders in America also colors their political views. It often makes them suspicious or critical of established power. Anarchy appeals to the Southern Italian worldview. Revolution and resistance also exercise a mythic charm. Early Italian-American poets were usually political radicals, though rarely loyal and obedient members of any party. More recently, several Italian-American women—most notably Sandra Mortola Gilbert—are significant figures in the feminist movement.

Second, Italian-American poets reflect the Roman Catholic culture in which they were raised. The mythology and iconography of Latin Catholicism often form the symbolic framework of their poetry. Even if the poets overtly reject the religion, its worldview still permeates their imaginations. One does not often find openly religious poetry (the work of Peggy Rizza Ellsberg being a noteworthy exception), but Catholic symbols and archetypes are to be found everywhere in their verse. Likewise Catholic rituals and sacraments (funerals, first communions, confessions, and mass) constitute a frequent setting for Italian-American poems. Jerome Mazzaro’s “The Caves of Love” describes morning mass in an immigrant church. Toni Conley’s “Ash Wednesday” begins with the Lenten ritual of its title. Samuel Maio’s “At the Funeral Mass” exemplifies a subject so common among Italian-American poets as to be nearly universalÉa family funeral at which the younger generation speaker observes the older generation from a new (and inevitably slightly alienated) perspective. Innumerable poems present scenes in the confessional. David Citino has made a career of presenting every incident of a Catholic childhood.

Third, Italian-American poets have a heightened consciousness of their European Latin roots. Even those raised in poverty are oddly cosmopolitan. Their family background liberates them from the often narrowly nationalistic outlook of mainstream America. While many American poets reject European influences as harmful distractions from the search for a native voice, most Italian-American poets view Europe—sometimes in its Modernistic aspects, sometimes in its older traditions—as a potential source of strength. Felix Stefanile, LindaAnn Loschiavo, Mary Fortunato Galt, Jay Parini, and Gerald Costanzo all demonstrate this unselfconscious sophistication in different ways. One also sees a European consciousness in the many distinguished translators among Italian-American writers—including Joseph Tusiani, Michael Palma, Jonathan Galassi, W. S. DI Piero, Paul Vangelisti, and Stephen Sartarelli, to mention only a few.

Finally, there tends to be a strong element of realism in Italian-American poetry. It reflects a concern with portraying a world of common experience rather than the creation of a private verbal universe. Often this realistic urge expresses itself in the harsh description of urban life. One sometimes sees the sharp edge of naturalism in the poetry of W. S. DI Piero, Lucia Maria Perillo, and Felix Stefanile as strongly as in the cinema of Martin Scorsese or Michael Cimino. Kim Addonizio’s book-length narrative sequence, Jimmy & Rita, for instance, unsparingly describes the downward careers of two drug addicts. Sometimes the realist impulse depicts the subtler psychological realities of a common cultural or religious consciousness as in Jerome Mazzaro. Though their artistic solutions vary, for Italian-American writers, poetry remains a public art.

The full range and quality of Italian-American poetry, however, remains inadequately understood. No serious critic has yet surveyed the field with the necessary combination of knowledge, sympathy, and discrimination. Only the bare beginnings of literary history have yet been undertaken. Fernando Alfonsi’s 1994 anthology, Poeti Italo-Americani e Italo-Canadesi, is invaluable—despite its many shortcomings—simply because it attempts to map out the territory. Significantly, Alfonsi found his publisher not in America but in Italy. American presses still generally view Italian-Americans as a small and unattractive market. Only recently have journals like Italian Americana and Voices in Italiana Americana created the regular forums for literary essays, reviews, and commentary that are the necessary precondition for serious critical consideration and consensus.

The undeveloped nature of critical thinking and scholarship in the field is evident from the terms in which Italian-American poetry is commonly discussed. Most critics still borrow fashionable theoretical methodologies (mostly off-the-rack multiculturalism or feminism) and use the concepts so mechanically that they miss the unique qualities of both the Italian-American experience and the poetry it produces. Meanwhile non-academic commentators still indulge in indiscriminate ethnic boosterism. Neither approach does justice to Italian-Americans as serious literary artists. The theoretical approach characteristically treats the poet not as an individual author but as so much sociological data. Boosterism reduces the writer—good, bad, or indifferent—to an uplifting example. Isn’t it marvelous, the booster coos, that an Italian can write a poem? However well-intentioned, such criticism is condescending. Promotion is no substitute for serious criticism. If Italian-American poetry amounts to anything worthwhile in artistic terms, it deserves hard and informed evaluation.

At its frequent worst, literary boosterism takes the form of a long list of authors with Italian surnames followed by a vague exhortation to take them seriously as writers. The longer the list—the compiler implies—the more persuasive the case for the literary importance of Italian-American poetry. In art, however, quantity means infinitely less than quality. One Dante counts for more than a hundred mediocrities. A long, indiscriminate list of names convinces no skeptical outsider; nor will crude assertion change the cultural fact that there is still no widely-recognized and shared body of Italian-American poetry. Its public reception remains marginal, even among Italian-American readers. Moreover, public recognition will not come to general categories of writers; critical esteem and sustained attention is earned one writer at a time.

Such lists also reveal a deeper irony. They almost inevitably demonstrate that even the well-wishing collector of the names has not actually read all the poetry being so heartily recommended. Published lists commonly include non-Italians with Italiante names and exclude real Italian-Americans with non-ethnic surnames. Patricia Storace, for example, usually appears on such lists. Yet, as anyone who has read the first poem in Storace’s only book of verse learns that she has virtually no Italian blood and no Italian-American background whatsoever. (On the other hand, Mary Jo Salter and Jack Foley, whose names never appear, are half Italian). Such lists ignore the two relevant issues for approaching the whole endeavor: first, is the poetry genuinely distinguished; and second, does the poetry speak in some meaningful way about the Italian-American experience? Unless the critic can sincerely say yes to both questions, the author’s names does not belong on a list.

Some readers may feel uncomfortable with my insistence on making distinctions. They want to create a warm, extended literary family in which every poet is welcomed unconditionally. I will not condemn such ethnic solidarity, but neither will I call it literary criticism or informed scholarship. If we do not define Italian-American poetry with some strictness and consistency, we dilute the usefulness of the category. It becomes an emotional counter rather than a legitimate critical concept. There is no value in applying ethnic categories to an assimilated writer with an Italian surname nor an non-Italian with an Italianate name. Life experience, not a surname, is what determines ethnicity in literature. Otherwise we might as well talk about R. S. Gwynn and Rodney Jones as “Welsh-American” poets, or Emily Grosholz and Judith Hemschemeyer as “German-American” poets. If the only place a text displays ethnicity is its by-line, then it isn’t an ethnic text.

If Italian-Americans hope to win a broader audience for their writers, they must begin by taking their own literary heritage seriously. They must read, discuss, and evaluate their own authors. They must create and support the necessary cultural institutions to foster informed discussion—journals, publishers, readings, lectures, college courses. They must also risk making judgments about literary quality. Broad and bland endorsement will not foster a healthy literary culture, and lip service is no substitute for intellectual engagement. One sees the beginnings of serious critical activity in journals like Italian Americana and Via and in publishers like Guernica Editions and Italica Press. So much work remains to be done, however, that it is easy to be pessimistic about the outcome. The brightest young Italian-American writers and critics gravitate to the mainstream academic and intellectual culture. That is where reputations are made and the greatest rewards are found. The new generation of Italian-American intellectuals know as well as their immigrant grandparents did that assimilation is the easiest road to success.

“A book is never a masterpiece,” observed Edmond de Goncourt. “It becomes one.” A classic emerges not merely from the pages of a book but from the sustained attention and esteem awarded by generations of readers. The same slow dialectic of validation also applies to literary traditions. No new tradition suddenly appears fully formed from a few books; it grows slowly out of the ongoing conversation a culture has about these books. In this sense, Italian-American literature does not yet exist. Italian-American poetry, fiction, and drama are concepts still being slowly and tentatively summoned into being—too slowly and too tentatively. Unless a new generation of readers finds cogent reasons to connect with this literary heritage it will remain a half-realized historical category of interest mainly to sociologists and antiquarians. The creation of a full and meaningful literary tradition for Italian-American letters will require more intellectual energy than we have historically seen in our community. The necessary changes in attitude must happen soon—while the living connections with the immigrant experience still exist—or never. Our community has all the talent, intelligence, and influence to make the changes. What we lack is the resolve.

Dana Gioia is the former poetry editor for Italian Americana, a semi-annual historical and cultural journal. Published in Beyond the Godfather: Italian American Writers on the Real Italian American Experience (University Press of New England 1997)