Based on a True Story


Poet Mariella Mehr

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Today in class we talked about the difference between biographical interpretation and cultural interpretation. It can be tricky: it’s good analysis to interpret Papusza’s references to living in hiding in her poem “Tears of Blood” as references to WWII. The poem’ speaker explicitly describes the Romani experience in Europe at that time. She describes soldiers and Germans, hiding in the forest, the fear of being hunted, and imminent death. It’s the cultural and political context of the poem, and knowing that the speaker is describing WWII is essential to its analysis.

At the same time, we know that Papusza had a very similar experience to the speaker of her poem. She was also in hiding in the forest, also hunted, also cold and terrified. So should we assume that the speaker in the poem is her?

Nope. Unless the author says, “this is autobiographical so please read it that way!” you have to assume that the author has personal autonomy from the poem. As a critical reader, it’s your job to look to the text for analysis and not the author’s biography. Today we talked about the “pelican” as a symbol in  Béla Osztojkán’s poem “As the pelicans.” We talked about the myth of pelicans feeding their young from the blood of their own breast and how they were then seen as Christ-like animals in the Middle Ages. That helped us to understand the layered meanings of self-sacrifice and “cannibalism” in the poem with respect to the cycle of discrimination, poverty, and begging or crime that some impoverished Romani are trapped in. It could also be a reference to the isolation that so many Romani experience and how the Romani community can only count on themselves. We talked about the harsh cry of the pelican and how that relates to the “ugly” or sad cries of the poem, even how the whole poem, with no full-stop punctuation until the very end, may be a cry in form. All of these cultural, social, political, syntactical, and textual elements helped us interpret a very rich work of art. To assume that Osztojkán was the speaker of the poem and that he must be writing from some personal pelican experience wouldn’t be very helpful. It would knock our analysis off-track, sending us on a wild tangent that would probably dead-end. The author’s biography is almost entirely irrelevant.

Almost. That’s not to say that biographical information has no place whatsoever in your exploration of poetry. Usually, writer’s lives are interesting. Papusza’s life is so tragic and she sacrificed so much to be heard that it seems a true shame not to know her story. Mariella Mehr’s gorgeous poem, “A red foundling strolls into this dream” seemed richer knowing that she was taken from her parents by the state (purely because they were Romani) and grew up in orphanages and foster homes, a foundling who nobody really found. But see it as that, another (separate) story.

At the same time, would a deeper awareness of Papusza’s life have saved her work from being misappropriated and used against her community? Maybe. Maybe not. But a deeper understanding of Romani culture and concepts of “home” may have. However, the publisher who misappropriated it had his own nefarious political agenda, so it would be fair to argue that no amount of cultural context could have saved Papusza and her community from its gross misuse. It may have changed the way it was received though. But that’s another issue.

Check out Kathleen Rooney’s essay “Based on a True Story. Or Not.” It’s a fascinating exploration of what is gained or lost when we find out that poem or story that “seems” autobiographical isn’t. Would we still feel the same way about “Tears of Blood” if Papusza had never lived in hiding? Would you feel like she had a “right” to write about such an emotionally intense experience if she hadn’t lived through it? And, since we know that she did live through an experience similar to her speaker’s, do you consider the autobiographical even if not all the details are “based on a true story”?

If you want to go for some extra credit, read the article and respond. Illustrate your points with examples. I’m curious about what y’all will think. If you want to talk about the poem that you presented on/will present on, go for it.


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