Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny

by Lisel Mueller
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

The central issue of the poem is the conflict between the way things are and the way they should be. This is a conflict as old as the human hope for a better world. Realists refer to it as “reality versus illusion”; idealists refer to it as “the real versus the ideal.” Lisel Mueller sums up the realist view in the lines “Jenny, we make just dreams/ out of our unjust lives.” However, the poet is not content with labeling them only as dreams; instead, she finds that the ideal can serve a creative purpose: “Still, when your truthful eyes,/ your keen, attentive stare,/ endow the vacuous slut/ with royalty, when you match/ her soul to her shimmering hair,/ what can she do but rise/ to your imagined throne?” The poet sums up her balancing of the real and the ideal in the lines “And what can I, but see/ beyond the world that is// the world as it might be?” The poet recognizes that this is more than a conflict; it is a juggling act. With nothing but the fairy-tale ideal, a child is ill-prepared for the real world, in which there is no absolute right or wrong. On the other hand, with nothing but the real world in its present state, there is no hope for anything better. It is a temporary balancing, one that Mueller has undertaken in many of her poems. In this one, she relieves the didacticism of her conclusion—that people expand their limits when someone sees a creative possibility for them—by referring to it as something the child teaches her “once more.”

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Poets are especially concerned with balancing the real and the ideal, knowing that these are also the literal and the imaginative and that poetry needs both. Mueller’s concern with the real and the ideal is made more poignant by the knowledge that she and her parents escaped from Adolf Hitler’s Germany and took refuge in the United States in 1939. She grew up all too aware that the world is no simple fairy-tale existence. Yet many of her poems are filled with the fairy tales of her childhood, and her work shows that, despite discouragement, it has remained important to her to help make “the world as it might be.” The intensity of her use of fairy-tale characters and motifs reflects the fact that, growing up in Germany, her idea of fairy tales differs from the American view that such tales represent mere wishful thinking. Rather, she inherits the European view that fairy tales, like myths, vividly present stock characters and situations people meet in everyday life, and she takes their power seriously, even though she recognizes their simplicity.

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Analysis