The very first poem I read by Lisel Mueller, “In the Thriving Season,” had left me eager to read more, and once I started reading, I devoured every single poem she had ever published. Considering her meteoric rise to my top favorites, I was in equal parts thrilled and awed when she invited me to her place for an interview.
As I stepped off the elevator, Ms. Mueller was waiting for me in the hallway, neatly coiffed, attired in a jewel-blue blouse and tailored trousers, her smile as warm as I remembered from a photograph on my computer screen. On one wall of her comfortable place was a grouping of photographs taken by her older daughter, and on her coffee table, lay a copy of Alive Together, the collection spanning her work of 35 years, for which she won the Pulitzer.
We began the session with an informal chat, off the record, with the intent of getting to know each other, and to feel more comfortable during the interview. At times, I was so absorbed in our conversation, I forgot to turn on the recorder. We broke off frequently to discuss some point or the other, and laugh or exclaim over some shared experience. The afternoon flew past and I was shocked to see how late I had stayed, when I meant to have only stayed for an hour.
I had expected to be impressed by Ms. Mueller, but what I did not expect was to walk away from her presence, clutching my copy of Alive Together, with its brand new and personal inscription, feeling that I had made a friend.
There is no doubt that Ms. Mueller’s poetry is among the finest oeuvres in the English language. She is a consummate word artist with a natural ear for music in the placement of words and lines. Her poetry is alive with imagery, conjured forth from a rich and textured imagination.
Lisel’s poems display a wonderful craftsmanship; they are intricate and vivid, combining poetic vision with accessibility, layered with intelligence and depth of emotion. Mueller probes with precision, laying bare the core, then finding resolution which satisfies at every level. Below, in one of my personal favorites, a poem that builds pace with a soft luminosity, we are delighted by an exquisite epiphany:
How swiftly the strained honey
of afternoon light
flows into darkness
and the closed bud shrugs off
its special mystery
in order to break into blossom:
as if what exists, exists
so that it can be lost
and become precious.
(From: Alive Together, 1986 )
There are many complex flavors complementing each other in Ms. Mueller’s work. Her innate sense of the lyric works in close proximity with a natural talent for blending nuances of meanings into unique phrasings. She has it all, the imagery and ideology. Her word paintings can range from delicate and subtly applied brushstrokes, to bright and colorful verse throbbing with drama and flair, but she always pulls the reader right in with her. In the breathtaking poem below, she speaks with a strange, prophetic intensity:
When the moon was full they came to the water,
some with pitchforks, some with rakes
some with sieves and ladles,
and one with a silver cup.
And they fished till a traveler passed them and said
to catch the moon you must let your women
spread their hair on the water—
even the wily moon will leap to that bobbing
net of shimmering threads,
gasp and flop till its silver scales
lie black and still at your feet.”
And they fished with the hair of their women
till a traveler passed them and said
do you think the moon is caught lightly,
with glitter and silk threads?
You must cut out your hearts and bait your hooks
with those dark animals;
what matter you lose your hearts to reel in your dream?”
And they fished with their tight, hot hearts
till a traveler passed them and said,
what good is the moon to a heartless man?
Put back your hearts and get on your knees
and drink as you never have,
until your throats are coated with silver
and your voices ring like bells.”
And they fished with their lips and tongues
until the water was gone
and the moon had slipped away
in the soft, bottomless mud.
(From: Dependencies, 1965)
Her precise descriptions and details anchor the world for readers, and her fine observations make poetic scenarios jump off the page:
“It was as if
music were a night-blooming flower
that would not open
until we held our breath.”
(From: “Cavalleria Rusticana,” from Waving from Shore 1989)
There is a refreshing unpretentiousness in Ms. Mueller’s work. The reader has no need to decode a poetic cipher—her language is simple and incandescent, shedding light in the darkest corners of our souls with clarity. Her verbiage is honed, and carefully crafted without artifice, for maximum effect, often whimsical with humorous twists, but sometimes with an undercurrent of sadness.
“Slowly you turned to stone
And I, your daughter/keeper—
what did I know about
the sentience of stone?
I watered you with indignities
and tears, but you never bloomed”
(From: “Voyager,” from Second Language 1986)
Lisel Mueller has a genius for finding subjects and new ways of looking at familiar objects and circumstances. In a gleeful, almost fantasia-like visual, she writes:
“The harpist believes there is music
in the skeletons of fish
The French horn player believes
in enormous golden snails
The piano believes in nothing
and grins from ear to ear”
(From “The Concert,” from The Private Life, 1976)
She is also very quick to grasp images that often elude other writers, working through patiently to find the extraordinary. Ms. Mueller has always known that original ideas by themselves do not make for exceptional poetry. It is the treatment given those ideas that matters. She writes:
“There are very few ideas worth talking about. Those ideas are good for all times, but unless a poet has a new way of dealing with those ideas, they become commonplace. And new insights, new connections, are inseparable from their language, which is why a paraphrase of a poem always sounds banal.”
Her work is characterized by its understanding tone and a voice that is loving and responsive. She carries an instinctive knowledge of life’s vagaries and upheavals. She knows our secrets but she is gentle with them. There is a quiet strength and character in her writing, a thorough but compassionate examination of life.
It is interesting to note how Lisel came to write the sensitive and subtle poem below. Ms. Mueller related how she and her husband were listening to the Viennese composer, Schoenberg. Previously unaccustomed to atonal music, it set off disturbing feelings; the dissonance served as a background for the sharp grimness of the poem, a true indication of how one art can spark off inspiration in another. The image of a dark cave came to her, as did the feeling of helplessness and a need to be led, as often happens in the case of someone who has lost a sense, such as sight. Note the use of multiple sensory images in this atmospheric piece. She understands how some senses seem to compensate for the loss of another; thus one hears amplified, the “sound of water”, and one smells the “scent of horses and roses.” It is written, not with the flow of a sighted person, but with one who stumbles and shifts their way of perceiving the world. The short, biting sentences add to the aura of anxiety. It is a fascinating study of instincts and needs, and at the very end, the words, “Touch me,” are an appeal, an invitation, a universal plea, a benediction. How much more human can that be?
The Blind Leading the Blind
Take my hand. There are two of us in this cave.
The sound you hear is water; you will hear it forever.
The ground you walk on is rock. I have been here before.
People come here to be born, to discover, to kiss,
to dream, and to dig, and to kill. Watch for the mud.
Summer blows in with the scent of horses and roses;
fall with the sound of sound breaking; winter shoves
its empty sleeve down the dark of your throat.
You will learn toads from diamonds, the fist from the palm,
love from the sweat of love, falling from flying.
There are a thousand turnoffs. I have been here before.
Once I fell off a precipice. Once I found gold.
Once I stumbled on murder, the thin parts of a girl.
Walk on, keep walking, there are axes above us.
Watch for occasional bits and bubbles of light—
birthdays for you, recognitions : yourself, another.
Watch for the mud. Listen for bells, for beggars.
Something with wings went crazy against my chest once.
There are two of us here. Touch me.
(From : Dependencies, 1965 )
Honest, clever, but without the slightest hint of arrogance, Ms. Mueller’s poetry resounds with grace and meaning; in her voice is a quiet recognition of life, and everything it offers, good and bad. Upon reading her poetry, we are struck by the quality and substance of her work and astonished by her humility, and wealth of talent.
Ms. Mueller has published several books of poetry, volumes of translation and a book of essays. About translations, she writes:
“Translating was very tough and, therefore, very exhilarating for me, you have to find an equivalent for emotion and setting. Those are the most difficult things because you can’t do that literally.”
Other than some early forays into poetry during her adolescence, she began to write poetry in earnest after the death of her mother precipitated a storm of grief and unlocked her poetic talent. In her poem, “When I Am Asked,” she writes:
“I sat on a 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.”
(From: Waving from Shore, 1989)
Mueller’s poetry has appeared widely in such magazines as POETRY, The New Yorker, The Nation, Saturday Review, Ohio Review, Paris Review, Chicago Review and the Virginia Quarterly Review. In addition, she has published critical essays in Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Chicago Daily News.
Alive Together: New and Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press,1996)
Waving from Shore (Louisiana State University Press,1989)
Second Language (Louisiana State University Press, 1986)
The Need to Hold Still (Louisiana State University Press,1980)
Voices from the Forest (Juniper Press,1977)
The Private Life (Louisiana State University Press,1976)
Dependencies (University of North Caroline Press,1965)
Life of a Queen (chapbook, Juniper Press, 1970)
Learning to Play by Ear (1990)
Circe's Mountain by Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1990)
Selected Later Poems of Marie Luise Kaschnitz (Princeton University Press, 1980)
Whether or Not by Marie Luise Kashnitz
Three Daughters by Anna Mitgutsch
Ms. Mueller was also co-translator of performing version of Hugo von Hofmannsthal's play, "Das Salzburger Grosse Welttheater," produced in Chicago at Goodman Theatre. Many of her poems are represented in anthologies, including The Contemporary American Poets, The Poetry Anthology, and Rising Tides: 20th Century Women Poets. Some of her poems have been set to music.
Ms. Mueller's work has been well received by readers and critics alike. Commentators praise Mueller’s controlled command over language and her mastery as a poet. Her deft juxtaposition of a vast universe with the microcosm of a person’s individual experience imparts a timelessness to her work. In recognition of her brilliant contributions to literature, she has been the recipient of several major awards over her writing career:
Pulitzer Prize for poetry (1997) for Alive Together: New & Selected Poems
The Pushcart Prize
National Book Award (1981) for The Need to Hold Still
American Book Award
Ruth Lilly Lifetime Achievement Award(2002)
National Endowment for the Arts fellowship
Carl Sandburg Award
Lamont Poetry Prize (1975) for The Private Life
Jacob Glatstein Memorial Prize from Poetry
The Emily Clark Balch Award from the Virginia Quarterly Review
Helen Bullis Award from Poetry Northwest
Illinois Poet Laureate Award
The Eunie Tietjens Memorial Prize
The English-Speaking Union Prize
The Theodore Roetheke Prize
Robert M. Ferguson Memorial Award from Friends of Literature,Chicago
Lisel Mueller, born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1924, immigrated to the United States when she was 15 years old. Her father was a German intellectual whose opposition to Hitler forced the family to flee to America in 1939.
After her graduation from the University of Evansville in 1944, she worked as a social worker, receptionist, and library assistant. Her interest in poetry intensified, and she read the work of T. S. Eliot, I. A. Richards, John Crowe Ransom, and Cleanth Brooks. Mueller completed graduate studies at the University of Indiana and reviewed books for the Chicago Daily News. She has taught at the University of Chicago, Elmhurst College in Illinois, and Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont.
Lisel and her husband, Paul Mueller built a home in Illinois where they raised two daughters and lived for many years. She currently resides in Chicago.
Although German had at one time been her first language, she made English, and indeed poetry, her own language. In the first poem, “Necessities,” from her 1986 collection Second Language, Lisel Mueller reveals how language itself is a prime necessity:
“Even now, the old things first things,
which taught us language. Things of day and of night.
Irrational lightning, fickle clouds, the incorruptible moon.
Fire as revolution, grass as the heir
to all revolutions. Snow
as the alphabet of the dead, subtle, undeciphered.
The river as what we wish it to be.
Trees in their humanness, animals in their otherness.
Summits, Chasms. Clearings.
And stars, which gave us the word distance,
so we could name our deepest sadness.”
Reading Ms. Mueller’s poems is like taking a pilgrimage of language where the words take on a life of their own, with startling metaphors. Her poems are tight with precision and capable of new connections and brilliant insights. In her hands, language becomes a fluid, dynamic vehicle, capable of wonders.
“Read the history
of the mouth,
of the womb,
if you want to know
of the rose.
Thorns were added,
a later invention.
It is not certain by whom:
a bitter lover, or
a poet trying to crash
the party in heaven.”
(From: “A Short History of the Rose” from Voices From the Forest, 1977)
Mueller reaches into the reader’s heart and remains there, inviting us to share her delight in images and feelings, somehow weaving her words around us in a textural richness of color and emotion:
“…now and then
a cardinal with its lyric call,
its body blazing like a saint's
unexpectedly gaudy heart,
spills on our reasonable scene
of brown and gray, unconscious of itself.
I search the language for a word
to tell you how red is red.”
(From: “Letter to California” from Second Language, 1986)
In her poem, Alive Together, Lisel speaks about the miracle of being alive. She is open to every experience and makes the most of what is there, in the moment. She is very conscious of how we are interconnected, and how we become part of the same existential realm when we share our words. She writes:
“Though my family landed in the Midwest, we lived in urban or suburban environments. It was only after my husband and I built our house, that my consciousness changed. That was my initiation, and …after 40 years in this house I know what time of day it is by the way the light slants. I am intimately familiar with the names and habits of the wildflowers and the birds that live in our hawthorns and aspens. We all live together, in the world and in my poems.”
- Lisel Mueller
Not only is Lisel Mueller an incomparable poet, and one of our international treasures, she has left for all generations to come, a great legacy. Meeting her and getting to know her will always be a cherished memory for me. It is difficult to read Lisel Mueller’s poetry and not fall in love with her.
(Permission for re-printing Ms. Mueller’s poetry granted by Amanda Atkins, senior publicist at LSU Press, and the “Permissions” department at LSU Press. We also gratefully acknowledge Ms. Mueller’s graciousness and warmth, and sharing with us so generously, her time and remarkable work.)
Click here to read Ms. Mueller’s interview