Lisel Mueller was born Lisel Neumann in Hamburg, Germany, to Fritz C. Neumann and Illse Burmester Neumann, both teachers. Leaving her grandparents behind, her immediate family fled Nazi Germany in 1939 and settled in Evansville, Indiana. Mueller was blessed with a set of parents who were, according to Mueller, “wholly and blessedly gender-blind.” Mueller characterizes her mother as “feminine in the sense that she was warm, outgoing, and impulsive, but she was totally ignorant of ’feminine wiles,’ such as manipulation of, and deference to, men.” It was only when Mueller moved to Evansville, Indiana, at the age of fifteen that she discovered the more traditional roles of women and gender discrimination.
In 1943, Lisel Neumann married Paul Mueller, an editor, and they had two daughters, Lucy and Jenny. Although Mueller would dabble in poetry while in college, preparing for a social-work career, she began to write serious poetry only after the death of her mother in 1953. Many years later she explained, in her poem “When I Am Asked,” why she began writing poetry: On a beautiful June day shortly after her mother died, Mueller discovered that she had to place her grief “in the mouth of language,/ the only thing that would grieve with me.”
Mueller has worked as an instructor of creative writing at Elmhurst College, Goddard College, and the Warren Wilson M.F.A. Program for Writers. She is a self-taught poet, strongly influenced by...
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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...
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