What is amazing to a reader of Lisel Mueller's accomplished poetry isn't that she won the Pulitzer Prize this month. It's that the honor came as such a surprise.
"I was bowled over," Mueller says during a telephone interview from her home near Evansville, Ill. Sounding younger than her 73 years, her voice rises to someplace between a shout and a laugh as she explains: "I didn't even know my book was under consideration. I'm just incredibly, incredibly lucky."
The poems in her book, "Alive Together: New and Selected Poems," representing six collections and 35 years, attest to more than luck. One reviewer calls her poems "blazing insights into the human psyche." Another notes Mueller's genius: "She goes after our secrets and finds them." "We are transfixed and filled with fascination," says another.
Yet there is an element of luck to her career. Just having your work acknowledged is lucky for a poet, she says.
But much more than luck is at work when your poems have won several major literary prizes: among them, the Theodore Roethke Prize, the Pushcart Prize, the Lamont Poetry Selection, the Emily Clark Balch Award, the National Book Award, the Carl Sandburg Prize and, now, the Pulitzer. Mueller has won them all.
Mueller believes that she has always been lucky. She was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1924, to emancipated parents who were gender-blind. Her independence was untamed when she came to the United States at 15 and learned that little girls and ladies were supposed to be made of "sugar and spice and everything nice."
Mueller's father, Fritz Newmann, who had left Germany and gone to Evansville, Ill., was able to bring his family to America in June 1939 just three months before Germany's invasion of Poland and the start of World War II. America's anti-German sentiment during the war made young Lisel feel isolated, even as she was growing to love her new country.
She grapples with her conflicting identities as a German-born American in her poem "On Reading An Anthology of Postwar German Poetry," from her Pulitzer-winning collection:
America saved me
and history played me false:
I was not crushed
under rubble, nor was I beaten
along a frozen highway;
my children are not dead my love is back I have forced no one
into the death chamber.
Mueller's father was a professor of languages, and English came easily to his daughter. Her poem "Curriculum Vitae" recalls: In the new language everyone spoke too fast. Eventually/I caught up with them.
She caught up by listening to the radio and memorizing the words to hit tunes. Metaphor, however, puzzled her at first. She could not "make a connection between the sky and a blanket of blue," as she said in an earlier interview.
In 1943, she wed editor and musicologist Paul E. Mueller. That happy marriage is the subject of the title poem of her Pulitzer-winning collection "Alive Together":
Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun
She studied sociology in college, writing only a few poems. They were mostly inspired by a course in modern American literature, "especially the poems of Wallace Stevens," Mueller says. After college, she stopped writing; at the time, her art seemed like just a phase.
But after her mother's death in 1953, Mueller -- needing to put her feelings in order -- turned again to poetry. She writes of finding a voice for her mourning in the poem "When I am Asked": I placed my grief/in the mouth of language,/the only thing that would grieve with me.
When she took up poetry this time, she took it seriously. Mueller spent 12 years reading poems, studying versification and practicing verse forms.
Forced to decide whether it was possible to live a normal life and also to be an artist, Mueller determined to do both: as wife, a mother to two daughters, a poetry reviewer, part-time poetry teacher and poet.
Her life fueled her art. Soon she was in such prestigious publications as Poetry, Saturday Review, the New Yorker. Then came her books -- and prizes. "I was lucky," she says, "incredibly lucky."
Now she's retired from reviewing and teaching and concentrates on her poetry. Mueller explains her career through her poems, especially "Alive Together's" "Palindrome," which she calls her autobiography.
"My daughter was about 6 or 7 and was not sure of the difference between past and future," Mueller says, explaining the inspiration for this difficult, surreal work. "She made a list of things she needed for school." The list included notebook, pencil and loose-leaf paper, with the heading, "Things I Will Need In The Past."
"Her mistake gave me my poem," Mueller says. The poem proposes time can move backward and forward and each of us has a double whose path will cross ours:
Somewhere now she takes off the dress I am
putting on. It is evening in the antiworld
where she lives. Somewhere sometime we must have
passed one another like going and coming trains,
with both of us looking the other way.
Mueller writes about ordinary objects in her seven books of poetry: trains, clothing, food, snow, salt, flowers, children's drawings. But she puts them in an extraordinary context, led by her sense of irony and her interest in mythology and fairy tales.
She is also led by her love for poetry. She speaks of it reverently and refuses to define it: "I'm sorry, I can't do that," she says, as if a definition could somehow compromise its mystery.
Still, as in the poem "In Passing" from "Alive Together," she captures what she refuses to define:
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.
Pub Date: 4/25/97