Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The central issue of the poem is the conflict between the way things are and the way they should be. This is a conflict as old as the human hope for a better world. Realists refer to it as “reality versus illusion”; idealists refer to it as “the real versus the ideal.” Lisel Mueller sums up the realist view in the lines “Jenny, we make just dreams/ out of our unjust lives.” However, the poet is not content with labeling them only as dreams; instead, she finds that the ideal can serve a creative purpose: “Still, when your truthful eyes,/ your keen, attentive stare,/ endow the vacuous slut/ with royalty, when you match/ her soul to her shimmering hair,/ what can she do but rise/ to your imagined throne?” The poet sums up her balancing of the real and the ideal in the lines “And what can I, but see/ beyond the world that is// the world as it might be?” The poet recognizes that this is more than a conflict; it is a juggling act. With nothing but the fairy-tale ideal, a child is ill-prepared for the real world, in which there is no absolute right or wrong. On the other hand, with nothing but the real world in its present state, there is no hope for anything better. It is a temporary balancing, one that Mueller has undertaken in many of her poems. In this one, she relieves the didacticism of her conclusion—that people expand their limits when someone sees a creative possibility for them—by referring to it as something the child teaches her “once...

(The entire section is 450 words.)