Mueller is effective in direct proportion to the maintenance of high tension between herself and that thin membrane of material, the public world. She is a poet of deep moral conviction, whose private life is not only witness but watch-boy. Poem after poem places the reader in a context of an "occupied country."… The weaknesses in [The Private Life] … have little to do with historical imperatives or possible anachronisms. It is when the tension between private passion and public concern breaks down that Mueller's poems begin to sound like speeches; it is when the urgency of experience (vicarious or direct) makes the language marketable that the poetry unravels into the discursiveness of prose. Cause or casuistry, the human voice in a poem is the one we hear from the back of the room, not the one on stage. "The Gift of Fire" … is didactic, hardly the elegy it is intended to be to honor a suicide by fire. "Amazing Grace" … is pick-up prose. And "Hope" … is simply trite. All three of these poems would win us over by wit of their virtue. We need songs, not sermons, songs that Mueller, in her private life, sings so well. (p. 42)
Stanley Plumly, in The American Poetry Review (copyright © 1976 by World Poetry, Inc.; reprinted by permission of Stanley Plumly), July, 1976.
[A] sense of wonder runs throughout [Lisel Mueller's] poetry: we may have thought it would never come again. She even dares to have a poem [in The Private Life] entitled "Hope": "the singular gift / we cannot destroy in our-selves." These are honest, open poems, a kind of verse that one is glad to have, because it runs so close to our own better responses. (p. 125)
Louis Martz, in The Yale Review (© 1976 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Autumn, 1976.
Lisel Mueller is too fond of the world "small"—small poem, small mistake, small laugh, small hands; one gets to wait for it. And sometimes the accumulations of instance and example by which she conveys her ideas are not quite pointed enough, as in "Alive Together" and "Spell for a Traveller". But many of the poems in The Private Life are as precise and energetic as could be desired. (p. 1348)
Patricia Beer, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1976; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), October 29, 1976.
Lisel Mueller is one of those poets who has a genius for finding subjects…. [A Private Life] 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 any-where 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. (p. 346)
She goes after our secrets, this poet; often, she finds them. There are two or three too facile poems, set pieces; and sometimes Mueller falls into lilting amphibrachs which contrast in sound too drastically with the serious tone demanded by the poem's subject material. But these are minor flaws in the work of this most quotable poet. Mueller's poetry is satisfying, filled with love and knowledge of a species adrift. The only thing I miss is … the drive toward the core, the steady deepening. (p. 347)
Dick Allen, in Poetry (© 1977 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), September, 1977.