Lisel Mueller, Pulitzer-winning poet who channeled history into verse, dies at 96

Lisel Mueller, who fled Hitler’s Germany as a teenager and became a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet in the United States, drawing on her family history for lyrical works about love, art, nature and loss – acknowledging pain even as she looked outward with joy – died Feb. 21 at a retirement community in Chicago. She was 96.

 The cause was complications of pneumonia, said her daughter Jenny Mueller.

After immigrating to the United States at age 15, Mueller spent some eight decades in the Midwest, where she lived for many years in a rural stretch of Chicago’s North Shore suburbs. Awakened in the morning by the moos of Holstein cows from a neighboring farm, she set to work from her second-floor study writing free-verse poetry that often reflected the beauty of the natural world, and what she called “the indifference of nature” in the face of human suffering.

Her poetry career began relatively late, with the publication of her first collection, “Dependencies” (1965), when she was 41. She had effectively come to the United States as a political refugee – her father, a teacher and outspoken leftist, lost his job after criticizing Hitler – and began writing poetry in her second language after her mother died in 1953.

“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,” she recalled in “When I Am Asked,” from her Pulitzer-winning book, “Alive Together: New and Selected Poems” (1996). 

The collection was praised by the Pulitzer jury as “a testament to the miraculous power of language to interpret and transform our world” and “a testament that invites readers to share her vision of experiences we all have in common: sorrow, tenderness, desire, the revelations of art, and mortality – ‘the hard, dry smack of death against the glass.’ “

Mueller won a slew of top honors in her field, including the National Book Award for her 1980 collection, “The Need to Hold Still,” and the 2002 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize for lifetime achievement. She also lectured and taught at schools including Elmhurst College, Goddard College and the University of Chicago, before a 1985 glaucoma diagnosis curtailed her public appearances and forced her to write with a large felt-tipped pen to see her words.

A onetime graduate student in comparative literature, she filled her work with references to mythology, folklore and fairy tales; allusions to artists such as Claude Monet, Mary Shelley and Anton Webern; and Romantic imagery of hawthorns, aspens and the birds outside her window. The result was a fusion of past and present, in which a dark history seemed to peer out from everyday dramas or idyllic scenes from nature.

In some poems, her subjects seemed altogether oblivious, or incapable of imagining the potential for violence – as in “Happy and Unhappy Families II,” which reflected on the ancient Greek story of Electra. “In the play, we know what must happen/long before it happens,/and we call it tragedy./Here at home, this winter,/we have no name for it.”

“The message is obvious,” Mueller once told the Chicago Tribune. “My family went through terrible times. In Europe no one has had a private life not affected by history. I’m constantly aware of how privileged we (Americans) are.”

In an interview, Poetry magazine editor Don Share said Mueller was “everything a poet could aspire to be: She hit all the right notes, and did so with grace, heart and wit. American poetry today focuses on such matters as privilege, the drama of everyday life, nature and also war, and she helped create the language in which we write and think about these important subjects.”

Above all, he added, Mueller was a great storyteller. “As she once wrote, ‘ . . . the story of our life/becomes our life,’ and poetry became hers.”

Mueller was born Elisabeth Annelore Neumann in Hamburg on Feb. 8, 1924. She later recalled living in a world that “had a soft voice and no claws,” before learning “the burden of secrets” amid Hitler’s rise, which forced her family to flee the country. 

Her father came to the United States in 1937 and settled in Indiana, where he taught French and German at Evansville College, now the University of Evansville. Mueller joined him two years later, along with her mother and younger sister, and struggled to assimilate at a time when German immigrants were often treated with suspicion. 

The poetry of Carl Sandburg helped ease the transition – “Literal yet evocative, I found it as exotic as the night train on which someone softly says, ‘Omaha,’ ” she later wrote – and so did the work of John Keats, whom she began reading while an undergraduate at Evansville. 

She married a classmate, Paul Mueller, in 1943. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in sociology the next year, Mueller and her husband did graduate work at Indiana University. He became an editor for Commerce Clearing House, a legal publisher, and Mueller worked as a social worker and librarian while writing on the side, reviewing poetry for the Chicago Daily News before focusing on her own work, even as she raised two daughters in Lake Forest, Illinois.

Her poetry collections included “The Private Life” (1976), which won the Lamont Poetry Prize (now the James Laughlin Award) for best second book; “Second Language” (1986); and “Waving from Shore” (1989). She also translated German works by Marie Luise Kaschnitz and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, whose play “The Salzburg Great Theatre of the World” she helped translate for a production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Paul Mueller died in 2001, after a 57-year marriage that Mueller evoked in her poem “Alive Together,” which began: “Speaking of marvels,/I am alive/together with you, when I might have been/alive with anyone under the sun/ . . . the odds against us are endless,/our chances of being alive together/statistically nonexistent;/still we have made it.”

In addition to her daughter Jenny of St. Louis, survivors include another daughter, Lucy Mueller of Chicago; and a granddaughter. 

“Poetry, for me, is the answer to how does one stay sane when private lives are being ransacked by public events,” Mueller told the Tribune after winning the Pulitzer. “It’s something that hangs over your head all the time. Luckily, I’ve had a sane and sanguine private life after coming here; we’ve lived in this house for 39 years. I suppose that’s how I come to grips with it by writing, trying to give voice to the unspeakable, to give music to terror.”

Source : Nation Multimedia