Mueller, Lisel

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Nationality: American (emigrated from Germany in 1939). Born: Elisabeth Neumann, Hamburg, Germany, 8 February 1924. Education: University of Evansville, Indiana, 1940–44, B.A. 1944; Indiana University, Bloomington, 1950–53. Career: Visiting professor, Goddard College and Warren Wilson College, 1977–86. Poet-in-residence, University of Chicago, Washington University, Elmhurst College, Wichita State University, and University of Missouri-Kansas City. Awards: Lamont Poetry Selection, Academy of American Poets, 1975; National Book award, 1981; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1990; Carl Sandburg award, 1990; Honorary Doctorate: Lake Forest College, Illinois, 1985; Pulitzer prize in poetry, 1997. Address: 909 West Foster, Apartment 607, Chicago, Illinois 60640, U.S.A.



Dependencies. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina Press, 1965.

Life of a Queen. LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Juniper Press, 1970.

The Private Life. Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Voices from the Forest. LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Juniper Press, 1977.

The Need to Hold Still. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1980.

Second Language. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1986.

Waving from Shore. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Learning to Play by Ear (essays and selected early poems). LaCrosse, Wisconsin, 1990.

Alive Together: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge, Louisiana State University Press, 1996.


Translator, Selected Later Poems of Marie Louise Kaschnitz. Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1980.

Translator, Whether or Not by Marie Louise Kaschnitz. LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Juniper Press, 1984.

Translator, Three Daughters by A.W. Mitgutsch. New York, Harcourt Brace, 1987.

Translator, Circe's Mountain by Marie Louise Kaschnitz. Minneapolis, Minnesota, Milkweed, 1990.


Critical Studies: "Comment on the Writer's Language: A Poem by Lisel Mueller" by Reginald Gibbons, in Indiana Review (Bloomington), spring 1985; "'The Steady Interior Hum': A Conversation with Lisel Mueller" by Stan Sanvel Rubin and William Heyen, in The Post-Confessionals: Conversations with American Poets of the Eighties, edited by Earl G. Ingersoll, Judith Kitchen, and Stan Sanvel Rubin, Rutherford, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.

Lisel Mueller comments:

When I Am Asked
When I am asked
how I began writing poems,
I talk about the indifference of nature.
It was soon after my mother died,
a brilliant June day,
everything blooming.
I sat on a gray stone bench
in a lovingly planted garden,
but the daylilies were as deaf
as the ears of drunken sleepers
and the roses curved inward.
Nothing was black or broken
and not a leaf fell
and the sun blared endless commercials
for summer holidays.
I sat on gray stone bench
ringed with the ingenue faces
of pink and white impatiens
and placed my grief
in the mouth of language,
the only thing that would grieve with me.
*  *  *

Lisel Mueller has not only received important American prizes—the Lamont and the National Book and Carl Sandburg awards-but she has also helped to bestow them. She served with John Frederick Nims, poet and former editor of Poetry magazine, and with Helen Vendler, professor and critic, as a judge for the Bollingen prize when it was awarded to Stanley Kunitz in 1987. Although sometimes considered to be a Midwestern poet, Mueller has been published nationally—in the East by The New Yorker, in the Midwest by Juniper Press in Wisconsin, and in the South by Louisiana State University. She has also been active as a translator and a teacher. She has given notable support to former students (for example, Paulette Roeske) and to younger poets such as Deborah Pope and Nance Van Winckel.

Mueller's poems typically focus on common experiences. She favors the familiar rather than the exotic, almost as if she had asked herself, What do I know about myself that has some public significance? She has said that her immediate decision to write poetry was influenced by the unexpected death of her mother. In much of her poetry she expresses herself by means of observed details:

I sat on a gray stone bench
in a lovingly planted garden,
but the daylilies were as deaf
as the ears of drunken sleepers
and the roses curved inward.
Nothing was black or broken
and not a leaf fell
and the sun blared endless commercials

The word "clarity" is often used to describe Mueller's poetry. In "My Grandmother's Gold Pin" such details as "fleur-de-lis," "elegant braids," "ebony," "cherry soup," and "beer soup" belong to a mood of aesthetic innocence, where beautiful things are good, plain things homey, and emotions central and clear. There is a sense of loss and of joy but not of moral complexity or ambiguity. Conflicts tend to be well defined without an overlay of ideology.

Although personal, Mueller's poems do seem to favor a certain distancing, as in this excerpt from the set of short poems "Imaginary Painting":

How I would paint the future
A strip of horizon, and a figure,
seen from the back, forever approaching.

These lines also show her setting a limit:

How I would paint Love
I would not paint love.

Mueller's poems have been likened to those of William Matthews, Linda Pastan, Carl Dennis, Rita Dove, Jonathan Holden, and Michael Waters, especially in their exploration of where private and public concerns intersect. As with these poets, personal conflicts may be evoked as a condition but not as an idiosyncrasy; otherwise, the fortissimo of personal or social involvements might become literally "unspeakable." The poems are as fluent as thoughtful speech; their rhythms tend, more often than not, to have rising cadences rather than acoustically assertive iambic lines.

Mueller's poems also speak with civility. In the poem "A Story," for example, she tells "How Fire Took Water to Wife," concluding with the lines

but after a while she weeps
and says he is killing her,
he shouts that he cannot breathe
Make up your own
ending, you say to the children
and they will, they will

—William Sylvester