Lisa Mueller Criticism - Essay

Stanley Plumly (review date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Dick Allen (review date 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Stephen Corey (review date 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

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)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Ann Louise Hentz (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

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)

(Poetry Criticism)

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)

(Poetry Criticism)

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)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Alice Fulton (review date 1988)

(Poetry Criticism)

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)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Anne-Marie Brumm (review date 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

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)

(Poetry Criticism)

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...

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Judith Kitchen (review date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

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)

(Poetry Criticism)

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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