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Lisel Mueller


Lisel Mueller was born in Hamburg, Germany, on February 8, 1924, and came to the United States in 1939. She attended the University of Evansville in Indiana, where her father was a professor of French and German. 

Her books of poetry include Alive Together: New & Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1996), which won the Pulitzer Prize; The Need to Hold Still (1980), which received the National Book Award; and The Private Life, which was the 1975 Lamont Poetry Selection, among others. She also published several volumes of translation, including Circe's Mountain by Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1990).

About Mueller's poems Rita Dove said, "The disingenuous lyric whose darker undertones reverberate long after we have floated on its sunlit surface.”

Her other honors include the Carl Sandburg Award and a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She taught at Elmhurst College, Goddard College, the University of Chicago, and Warren Wilson College. She lived in Lake Forest, Illinois and died on February 21, 2020. 

Selected Bibliography

Alive Together: New & Selected Poems (Louisiana State University Press, 1996)
Learning to Play by Ear (Juniper Press,1990)
Waving from Shore (Louisiana State University Press, 1989)
Second Language (Louisiana State University Press, 1986)
The Private Life (Louisiana State University Press, 1981)
The Need to Hold Still (Louisiana State University Press, 1980)
Voices from the Forest (Juniper Press, 1977)
Dependencies (University of North Carolina Press, 1965)

Lisel Mueller

By This Poet


Curriculum Vitae


1) I was born in a Free City, near the North Sea.

2) In the year of my birth, money was shredded into 
confetti. A loaf of bread cost a million marks. Of 
course I do not remember this.

3) Parents and grandparents hovered around me. The 
world I lived in had a soft voice and no claws.

4) A cornucopia filled with treats took me into a building 
with bells. A wide-bosomed teacher took me in.

5) At home the bookshelves connected heaven and earth.

6) On Sundays the city child waded through pinecones 
and primrose marshes, a short train ride away.

7) My country was struck by history more deadly than 
earthquakes or hurricanes.

8) My father was busy eluding the monsters. My mother 
told me the walls had ears. I learned the burden of secrets.

9) I moved into the too bright days, the too dark nights 
of adolescence.

10) Two parents, two daughters, we followed the sun 
and the moon across the ocean. My grandparents stayed 
behind in darkness.

11) In the new language everyone spoke too fast. Eventually 
I caught up with them.

12) When I met you, the new language became the language 
of love.

13) The death of the mother hurt the daughter into poetry. 
The daughter became a mother of daughters.

14) Ordinary life: the plenty and thick of it. Knots tying 
threads to everywhere. The past pushed away, the future left 
unimagined for the sake of the glorious, difficult, passionate 

15) Years and years of this.

16) The children no longer children. An old man's pain, an 
old man's loneliness.

17) And then my father too disappeared.

18) I tried to go home again. I stood at the door to my 
childhood, but it was closed to the public.

19) One day, on a crowded elevator, everyone's face was younger 
than mine.

20) So far, so good. The brilliant days and nights are 
breathless in their hurry. We follow, you and I.

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 day lilies 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 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.

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