Lisa Mueller Critical Essays


(Poetry Criticism)

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.