In New Hungers for Old, editor Dennis Barone anthologizes 100 poems penned by 100 different poets over the course of the last century. Other than brief biographical notes on the contributors, the collection does not include any background information on the writers, nor does it offer any critical commentary on the works selected. The volume would seem to most naturally appeal to readers interested in Italian-American literature, as well as those seeking to explore new material and voices in American poetry. The anthology’s title, though, certainly invites the question: «What is Italian-American poetry?». Indeed, a reader perusing the work without knowing its title might well be confused as to what constitutes the poems’ commonality. Arranged alphabetically by author, they float across historical space, vary greatly in content and theme, and employ disparate poetic forms ranging from fairly traditional to markedly innovative. Nonetheless, the poems as a whole provide an expressive, compelling and ultimately satisfying read. Not often is one transported, on waves of successive poems, from the «land of bright sun and colors» evoked in Daniela Gioseffi’s Orta Nova: Provincia di Puglia to the hard American sidewalk where a man lays in «rags» and «bleeding shirt» in Arturo Giovannitti’s The Bum, to an early winter morning blast of «encaustic clouds» in Peter Gizzi’s Wintry Mix. The images, sounds and emotions evoked across flowing syllables from one poem to the next effectively suture the disjuncture of time, place, subject matter and form. The more one reads the more the individual works begin to flow one into the other, each conversant with the poem that follows in a manner that Mary Caponegro describes as «organic» in her richly informative introduction.
In his preface, Dennis Barone states that his purpose in publishing New Hungers for Old was to fill a void by introducing an anthology of poetry based on Italian American identity. To the extent that this work is in fact the first anthology dedicated exclusively to poetry written by people who identify or have been identified as «Italian-American», Barone would seem to have fulfilled his stated objective. He goes on, however, to ponder what beyond ethnicity might serve to connect literature (in this case poetry) that is labeled «Italian-American». Barone relates how at a conference session dedicated to Pietro Di Donato, Gilbert Sorrentino and Carole Maso, certain «common core characteristics» were identified in these writers’ respective works of prose, namely: «an attack of social convention, an urge to linguistic impulse and adventure, an emphasis on musicality and emotion, and… an intense connection with sexuality as the key element in a rebellion against restrictions embodied in family, church, and narrative plot itself» (Preface i-ii). While it is compelling to see that works by Italian American writers of different generations and genders, each employing a unique style, do in fact possess «common core characteristics» such a discovery does not really enrich the discussion on what constitutes Italian-American literature much beyond the identifying mark of ethnicity itself. Certainly there are works by writers of other ethnicities that possess the same «common core characteristics» listed above, just as there are certainly works penned by writers of Italian American ethnic identity that do not possess all or any of them (such as the popular fiction of Peter Pezzelli). Is, then, American literature, or the study of poetry, advanced and enriched by the publication of this volume?
The designation of an Italian-American sub-genre coincides with the ethnic revival period of the 1960s and 1970s, when a new generation of scholars challenged prevailing literary conventions and succeeded in expanding the literary canon to better reflect the diversity of American society. The recognition of ethnic literature has not, however, been without its critics. As far back as 1978 John Reilly cautioned that the experiences of ethnicity can serve to detract from writing as much as to enrich it, eclipsing assessment of the work’s overall literariness due to «the assumption that “ethnic” is the operative term». More recently author Krys Lee in a blog for The Huffington Post raised concern that the term «ethnic literature» can be used to dismiss minority writers, the implication being that their works are neither representative of nor beholden to the same qualities of literariness ascribed to «regular» (i.e. non-ethnic) literature.
Both Reilly and Lee appear to hold an operative definition of ethnic literature that presumes it to contain obvious «ethnic» references. But scholars such as Fred Gardaphé and Anthony Tamburri have challenged this definition, noting how ethnic literature includes also more philosophic and post-modern works, which are less obviously imbued with ethnic markers. Barone’s anthology effectively illustrates this point by providing a full spectrum of Italian American poetic production, from the expressive to the post-modern, across a full century of time. Rarely does one encounter a poem by a self-taught sort of working class literary hero, such as Pascal D’Angelo (1894-1932), anthologized together with a contemporary writer known for her innovative and experimental style, such as Carole Maso. With regard to the themes of the material, while there are many one would expect to find in «ethnic» poetry – the hardships of adjusting to a new land, confrontations with prejudice, struggles with assimilation and self-actualization, the sense of bifurcation between the ethnic and the American self, journeys of return to the Old country, religion, family, and, of course, food – these are never treated in a manner that falls prey to sentimentality or stereotype, as Caponegro notes in her introduction. Just as significant, though, is the number of poems that contain no direct reference to Italian ethnicity, such as those by Carole Maso, Dana Gioia, Stephen Campiglio, Joseph Ceravolo, and Gilbert Sorrentino, who evoke instead more universal themes such as sexuality, love and loss. Nonetheless, when posited within and amongst the other poems of the anthology they seem no less Italian-American than the others, forming as they do a part of the whole.
After reading the entire anthology, one is still left wondering, «What is Italian-American poetry?». While «common core characteristics» may be discernible, the ultimate filo conduttore lies in the poets’ common Italian ethnic heritage and professed Italian-American identity. What value is there, then, in anthologizing this particular group of writers together on this basis alone? Perhaps the answer is as simple as proposing a celebration. In a culture that is so dependent on the merging of various ethnicities, it is important to recognize the full spectrum of literary contributions made by different ethnic groups. One hundred years is a milestone worthy of recognition. Barone’s volume brings together Italian American poets of greater and lesser acclaim, from the traditional to the experimental, from the past to the present, from those most fervently entrenched in the struggles of ethnic identity to those who seem to have transcended it, into a single, coherent work. The title, New Hungers for Old, comes from a poem by Emanuel Carnevali, perhaps the first Italian-American to make a significant impact on American poetry. Barone’s anthology proclaims that he was not the last, and portends that there will be more to come.