Life of a Queen, 1970 (chapbook)
The Private Life, 1976
Voices from the Forest, 1977 (chapbook)
The Need to Hold Still, 1980
Second Language, 1986
Waving from Shore, 1989
Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, 1996
The Great Salzburg Theatre of the World, 1969 (with John Reich; of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s play Das Salzburger grosse Welttheater)
Selected Later Poems of Marie Luise Kaschnitz, 1980
Whether or Not, 1984 (of Kaschnitz’s poetry)
Three Daughters, 1987 (of Anna Mitgutsch’s novel Züchtigung)
Circe’s Mountain, 1990 (of Kaschnitz’s short stories)
Learning to Play by Ear: Essays and Early Poems, 1990
Lisel Mueller (MYEWL-ur) is a German-born lyric poet whose published work spans the last third of the twentieth century. She was born Lisel Neumann in 1924. Her father, Fritz Neumann, a professor of language and literature, was persecuted as an intellectual after Adolf Hitler came to power. In 1933 Neumann fled Nazi Germany after being arrested by the Gestapo and detained for several days. In 1939 her mother, Ilse Burmester Neumann, also an educator, followed him with their two daughters to the United States, where they settled in Evansville, Indiana. World War II broke out three months after their departure. Consequently, the pull between the personal and the historical is grounded in Mueller’s immediate experience. “In Europe no one has had a private life not affected by history,” she has remarked, and, in fact, her past would yield a poetry shaped by history’s unforgiving hand.
Although Mueller was fifteen when she immigrated, she has always written her poems in English. The American poet Carl Sandburg, whose works were the first she read in English, influenced her toward a diction she describes as “unadorned, muscular, straightforward.” His language made writing seem possible for her, and she began to experiment with poems of her own, crediting Sandburg with her introduction to modern idiom. Later, at Evansville College, now the University of Evansville, she studied the works of Conrad Aiken for his musicality, along with those of Robinson Jeffers and Edna St. Vincent Millay. Mueller received her B.A. in sociology from Evansville College in 1943, while the war still raged in Europe.
That same year she married Paul Mueller, home from the Army on furlough; the couple’s marriage would span fifty-seven years. The title of her 1996 Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, Alive Together, invokes and celebrates their long union. Two daughters, Lucy and Jenny, introduced motherhood as a dimension in her poetry. In her essay “Learning to Play by Ear,” she comments on her experience as a wife and mother on one hand and as a poet on the other, concluding that the two roles intersect at the juncture of “growth, transformation, and possibility,” themes that echoed the lessons of the folktales and myths she had studied in the early 1950’s at Indiana University in Bloomington. Her work under Stith Thompson, a leading authority on European and American Indian folktales, influenced her subjects and themes across her career. Like Mueller’s poems, the myths and folktales she reveres unfold through metaphor. They offered, she has noted, “the treasure mountain of metaphor . . . I plunder for my poems.” Her family moved to the countryside near Libertyville, Illinois, in 1958, where they lived until her husband’s failing health necessitated a move to Chicago in 1999. He died in 2001.
Dependencies was her first collection published. Mueller in her signature poem, “When I Am Asked,” points to her mother’s death in 1953 as the pivotal event that demanded poetry in response. In “Curriculum Vitae,” she puts it this way: “The death of the mother hurt the daughter into poetry.” Mueller frequently cites memory as one’s only defense against loss, which further explains her return to the art she had rarely practiced since college.
The publication of Dependencies resulted in an offer to write freelance poetry reviews for the now defunct Chicago Daily News. Her several years in this position resulted in a broad knowledge of contemporary poetry she would store to shape her own ars poetica. Mueller also taught creative writing, first at Elmhurst College and finally in the master of fine arts program at Goddard College and its successor, Warren Wilson College, from 1977 until 1981, when her impaired vision made reading difficult.
The title of Mueller’s fourth collection, Second Language, points to her preoccupation with words and their use, a persistent theme. After her departure under duress in 1939, she visited Germany for the first time more than four decades later, a trip that became the subject of an essay, “The Return,” in which she notes that her native tongue had “taken on . . . the magic of a second language.” In Waving from Shore, her fifth collection, she explores the concept of escape in a world that is largely indifferent and leaves one to one’s own devices; similarly, The Private Life is colored by the turmoil occasioned by the Vietnam War. The publication of Alive Together brought the number of her collections to six, each representing not only a stage in her personal life but also a stage in history.
From her first book, Dependencies, in 1965, to Alive Together, published in 1996, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, five of her six full-length collections have been recognized with book awards, including the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets for The Private Life, the National Book Award for The Need to Hold Still, and the Carl Sandburg Book Award for Poetry for Waving from Shore. In 2002, Mueller became the seventeenth recipient of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, the largest monetary award for poetry in the United States. Joseph Parisi, editor of Poetry, remarked in his introduction that Mueller “has created a truly substantial and extraordinarily harmonious body of work [that] . . . speak[s] directly, gracefully, and movingly to the perennial concerns of our kind.”
A modest and private person who began writing relatively late in life, Mueller has received less recognition than other poets of her generation, such as Denise Levertov, Galway Kinnell, Philip Levine, and Adrienne Rich. Nevertheless, subsequent generations of poets have felt Mueller’s subtle influence as her work is increasingly appreciated. Notable for its unadorned Germanic vocabulary, uncompromising intelligence, and historical breadth at a time when many poets practice a clever, insular verse, Mueller’s unified and balanced view assures her place in the annals of American poetry.