Lisa Mueller Essay - Critical Essays

Mueller, Lisa


Lisel Mueller 1924–-

German-born American poet, essayist, and translator.

Mueller is a well-regarded poet and essayist noted for her lyrical verse that explores human experience and the power and limitations of language. Many critics have lauded the autobiographical aspects of her poetry, which often concerns her heritage and her poetic development. Her latest collection, Alive Together, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1997.

Biographical Information

Mueller was born February 8, 1924, in Hamburg, Germany. Her father, Fritz Neumann, was a political dissident who opposed the Nazi regime; in 1939, he fled Germany with his family and settled in Evansville, Indiana. Arriving in the United States at the age of fifteen, Mueller soon learned English and adjusted to her new surroundings. She attended the University of Evansville, where she became very interested in the poetry of John Keats. After her graduation from college in 1944, she worked as a social worker, receptionist, and library assistant. Her interest in poetry intensified, and she read the work of T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, John Crowe Ransom, and Cleanth Brooks. Mueller did graduate study at the University of Indiana and reviewed books for a Chicago newspaper. Her poetry was published in magazines in the mid-1950s, and her first poetry collection, Dependencies, appeared in 1965. In addition to several collections of poetry, Mueller has been a frequent contributor of poetry and essays to literary periodicals. She has translated German works into English, such as the work of German poet Marie Luise Kaschnitz and a novel by W. Anna Migutsch.

Major Works

Mueller's first volume of poetry, Dependencies, is considered literary in nature, as it makes frequent references to painting, music, and to other writers. Her second collection, The Private Life, is a collection of forty-three short verses that investigate the differences between our public and private selves. The Need to Hold Still continues this theme; the poems in this volume also explore the power of fairy tales. Her next collection, Second Language, is structured in five sections and concerns many of Mueller's recurring themes: memory, language, balance, and the effect of the past upon the present. The poems comprising Waving From Shore reflect on her personal experience and trace her poetic development. Published to critical acclaim, her most recent volume, Alive Together, presents both new material and selected poems. Viewed as a retrospective of her poetic career, this collection emphasizes her development as a poet and her major thematic concerns.

Critical Reception

Mueller's work has been very well received by readers and critics alike. Critical commentary has focused on Mueller's major themes, such as her family and cultural history, the power of language and storytelling, and the experience of failing eyesight or blindness. Because English is her second language, commentators note that Mueller has been concerned with the power of language; in particular, what is expressed through words and what cannot be conveyed through language. Commentators praise her ability to deftly juxtapose the large, boundless world around her with the life of the individual.

Principal Works

Dependencies 1965

Life of a Queen 1970

The Private Life 1976

Voices From the Forest 1977

The Need to Hold Still 1980

Second Language 1986

Waving From Shore 1989

Alive Together: New and Selected Poems 1996


Stanley Plumly (review date 1976)

SOURCE: A review of The Private Life by Lisel Mueller, in American Poetry Review, Vol. V, No. 4, 1976, p. 42.

[In the following essay, Plumly offers a mixed assessment of The Private Life.]

“Snow” is a good example of the private life of this, Lisel Mueller's second collection.

Telephone poles relax their spines
Sidewalks go under. The nightly groans
of aging porches are put to sleep.
Mercy sponges the lips of stairs.
While we talk in the old concepts
—time that was, and things that are—
show has leveled the stumps of the past
and the earth has a new language.
It is like the scene in which the girl
moves toward the hero
who has not yet said, “Come here.”
Come here, then. Every ditch
has been exalted. We are covered with stars.
Feel how light they are, our lives.

The private life, in this instance, suggests a hard-won intellectual as well as actual passion—even a political stubbornness of mind, if not of heart. There is realization, but more importantly, reconciliation to a condition the speaker can, apparently, do nothing about. All from a rather familiar position of vulnerability. Most of the best poems in this book, in fact, celebrate a condition of personal, even intimate life confronting or confronted by a vague but certain ontological menace. Usually a public enemy. In “Whoever You Are: A Letter,” the antagonist is anonymous only up to a point. Finally, in the last stanza, he exists as publicity.

Someone is already climbing
a tower in Texas, is halfway up,
is at...

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Dick Allen (review date 1977)

SOURCE: “To the Wall,” in Poetry, Vol. 130, September, 1977, pp. 342–53.

[In the following review, Allen contrasts Mueller'sThe Private Life with Robert Pack's collection, Keeping Watch.]

[Lisel Mueller] is one of those poets who has a genius for finding subjects. Her new collection, winner of the Lamont Poetry Award for publication of a second book, is thoroughly intelligent, the poems finding and holding onto subjects and feelings, images which occur to many but most often slip away unrecorded. Mueller can turn her attention almost anywhere and come up with a fine crafted poem. Her work is most characterized by its loving, responsive tone, her sympathy and awareness of how special it is to know you have a private life up to answering, with poems, things which delight or sadden you.

Reading A Private Life, I kept wishing I had known there was a poem here, or here, or there and feeling slight shocks of recognition. Here, for instance, is the third stanza of “Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny”:

Why do I read you tales
in which birds speak the truth
and pity cures the blind,
and beauty reaches deep
to prove a royal mind?
Death is a small mistake
there, where the kiss revives;
Jenny, we make just dreams
out of our unjust lives.

My favorite poem of the book, “Alive Together,” puts into words a thought that must occur to...

(The entire section is 520 words.)

Stephen Corey (review date 1981)

SOURCE: “Lives on Leaves,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 57, No. 4, Autumn, 1981, pp. 732–43.

[In the following review, Corey offers a laudatory assessment of Mueller's The Need to Hold Still.]

In The Need to Hold Still Mueller perfects a voice that has learned to react personally to all people, things, times, and places. The title poem, speaking of an aging woman who gathers bouquets of skeletal winter weeds, renders in human terms what Mueller's voice has learned in poetic terms: living is caring, simplicity can be wisdom. If we care, we can sometimes see ourselves in the world just by speaking its names, without any intervention from any applied forms or notions: “Teasel / yarrow / goldenrod / wheat / bedstraw / Queen Anne's lace / drop-seed / love grass: / plain, strong names, / bread and water.” To become that world, to be governed by its winter, can be immeasurably sad:

A woman
coming in from a walk
notices how drab
her hair has become
that gray and brown
are colors
she disappears into
that her body
has stopped asking
for anything but calm.

But the sadness carries wisdom unavailable to blossoming weeds and young women, “the dignity of form / after seduction / and betrayal / by color.” We look beneath the surface to a beauty born of, and surviving, experience: “dullness of straw, / which underlies / the rose / the...

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Lisel Mueller with Stan Sanvel Rubin and William Heyen (interview date 1981)

SOURCE: “A Conversation With Lisel Mueller,” in The Post-Confessionals: Conversations with American Poets of the Eighties, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, Judith Kitchen, and Stan Sanvel Rubin, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989, pp. 65–72.

[In the following interview, Mueller discusses her creative process, her background, and being a female poet in America.]

Born in Hamburg, Germany, Lisel Mueller came to this country in 1939 and has lived near Chicago for many years. She is the author of four collections of poetry, including The Private Life, winner of the 1976 Lamont Poetry Prize, The Need to Hold Still, winner of the 1981 National Book...

(The entire section is 3181 words.)

Ann Louise Hentz (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “The Sounds and Silences of Lisel Mueller's The Private Life,” in Contemporary Poetry, Vol. IV, No. 3, 1982, pp. 24–32.

[In the following essay, Hentz traces the theme of silence in Mueller's poetry.]

The dialectic suggested by such opposites as affirmation and negation, violence and forgiveness, darkness and light, is an integral part of Lisel Mueller's poetry. So although her poetry is filled with music and musicians, one is not surprised to find that it is also concerned with an examination of tangible silence. Aware of life's violences, its cruelties, its despairs, she is also aware of and evokes the silent life around us: a flower coming into...

(The entire section is 1939 words.)

Lisel Mueller with Nancy L. Bunge (interview date 1985)

SOURCE: An interview with Lisel Mueller, in Finding the Words: Interviews With Poets Who Teach, Swallow Press, 1985, pp. 96–105.

[In the following interview, Mueller discusses the Germanic nature of her verse, her thematic concerns, her impressions of American poetry, and the impact of teaching on her work.]

Nancy Bunge: How has being bilingual influenced your consciousness of language?

Lisel Mueller: We learn language by imitation; even people who don't know the grammar of their own language will speak it correctly if they hear it spoken correctly. Usage is another thing we just pick up. We don't think about our native language at all. But...

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Paul Solyn (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “Lisel Mueller and the Idea of Midwestern Poetry,” in Regionalism and the Female Imagination: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Emily Toth Ph.D., Human Sciences Press, 1985, pp. 67–80.

[In the following essay, Solyn analyzes Mueller's definition of Midwestern poetry.]

Any discussion of Midwestern poetry begins as a task of definition. In part this is because there is no school or movement that is accepted as Midwestern poetry, although there may be some benefit in that since the lack of a self-conscious school precludes arbitrary definitions. But the difficulty goes beyond the lack of a formal movement. If Midwestern poetry is defined as poetry...

(The entire section is 3609 words.)

Peter Stitt (review date 1987)

SOURCE: “The Whirlpool of Image and Narrative Flow,” in Georgia Review, Vol. 41, No. 1, Spring, 1987, pp. 192–208.

[In the following excerpt, Stitt provides a positive review of Mueller's Second Language.]

Second Language is the fourth book of poems by Lisel Mueller, who was born in Germany in 1924 and came to this country at the age of fifteen. Her conceptual predilection for a poetry that achieves its ends through the use of imagery is indicated both directly and indirectly at many points in the volume—which offers, as a kind of prefatory piece, a poem called “Necessities.” At first glance, the five sections of this poem seem to correspond...

(The entire section is 863 words.)

Alice Fulton (review date 1988)

SOURCE: “Main Things,” in Poetry, Vol. 151, January, 1988, pp. 360–77.

[In the following excerpt, Fulton praises the sincerity and simplicity of Mueller's verse in Second Language.]

Reading Lisel Mueller's fourth book, Second Language, is a bit like gazing at a lake or a tree. At first you think nothing new here: another wave, another leaf. But if you bring your full attention to bear, you're amazed at the implication and activity of an apparently simple surface. Like so many plain-style poems, these equate invisibility of craft with authenticity. The important difference here is that one does not feel manipulated by a disingenuous sincerity. There...

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Judith Kitchen (review date 1990)

SOURCE: “A Want Ad, ” in Georgia Review, Vol. 44, Nos. 1–2, Spring-Summer, 1990, pp. 256–71.

[In the following excerpt, Kitchen applauds the sensibility and accessibility of Mueller's Waving From Shore.]

… Lisel Mueller's fifth full-length collection, Waving from Shore, hands us a space in which to recover the self. She understands the power of the lyric; her poems turn on a spindle of silence. Muller's territory is what cannot be said, and that she finds a way to say it is her genius. Precisely because there is a real self, and a lived life, behind these poems, Mueller does not deny her feminine sensibility; her body is in harmony with...

(The entire section is 1085 words.)

Anne-Marie Brumm (review date 1991)

SOURCE: A review of Waving From Shore by Lisel Mueller, in Southern Humanities Journal, Vol. 25, Winter, 1991, pp. 95–7.

[In the following review, Brumm offers a positive assessment of Waving From Shore, contending that Mueller has “succeeded in creating a complex and eloquent canvas.”]

In her latest volume of poetry, Waving From Shore, Lisel Mueller uses the complex lens of her language to focus on the contrast between the larger world offering infinite possibilities and the circumscribed patch which she inhabits. In “Large Jigsaw Puzzle,” after struggling to explore the mystifying universe, she chooses to remain “back in the middle, /...

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Lisel Mueller (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Parentage and Good Luck,” in Where We Stand: Women Poets on Literary Tradition, edited by Sharon Bryan, W. W. Norton & Company, 1993, pp. 139–41.

[In the following essay, Mueller discusses her identification with women poets and the American literary tradition.]

I was born in Germany, the older of two daughters of emancipated, urban parents who were wholly and blessedly gender-blind. My father always claimed that he fell in love with my mother when she slammed her fist on the table to emphasize her disagreement with a point he made. My mother was “feminine” in the sense that she was warm, outgoing and impulsive, but she was totally ignorant of...

(The entire section is 839 words.)

Judith Kitchen (review date 1997)

SOURCE: “What Persists,” in Georgia Review, Vol. 51, No. 2, Summer, 1997, pp. 331–55.

[In the following excerpt, Kitchen praises Mueller's Alive Together, maintaining that “over the years, she has held herself to a standard of clarity and truthfulness in language as well as in emotion.”]

The most obvious and salient fact about the natural separation of poetry from criticism is that in the greatest ages of poetry there has been little or no criticism. Criticism comes, if at all, after the art.

—Karl Shapiro

Things have changed since Karl Shapiro's time—and this is Karl...

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Alison Townsend (review date 1998)

SOURCE: “Naming the Unnamable, ” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 15, January, 1998, pp. 18–19.

[In the following essay, Townsend provides a laudatory review of Mueller's Alive Together.]

I always approach “new and selected” collections of poetry with some trepidation, curious to see what has been chosen as most representative, but afraid preceding collections will be diminished or diluted, depth sacrificed for breadth. Happily, … Lisel Mueller's Alive Together introduce readers to the work … with all the immediacy of earlier collections, leavened by substantial amounts of new work.

Writing in the persona of Mary Shelley in...

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