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 the New Critics, including T. S. Eliot, Cleanth Brooks, I. A. Richards, and John Crowe Ransom. Mueller greatly admires Wallace Stevens; although she does not believe that she writes anything like Stevens, she does allude frequently to his poems in her own work. Mueller also developed her critical skills and her awareness of contemporary poetry by writing reviews for the Chicago Daily News. Perhaps most important, Mueller has drawn upon her life experiences as a mother and spouse for the material of her poems.
Mueller remained almost exclusively in the Midwest after her arrival in the United States, and it is a midwestern landscape that appears most often in her poetry. However, she has never been simply midwestern in her thoughts or outlook. Of the Midwest she says,I am more at home here than anywhere. At the same time I am not a native; I see the culture and myself in it, through a scrim, with European eyes, and my poetry accommodates a bias toward historical determinism, no doubt the burdensome heritage of a twentieth century native German.
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...
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