Lisel Mueller fled Germany at 15 and came to America, where she wrote in her poem “Curriculum Vitae”:
“In the new language everyone spoke too fast. Eventually
I caught up with them.”
She caught up and more, using her “new language” to craft ravishing poems in English that would win her the Pulitzer Prize and many other literary awards.
“I think it is the poet’s job to find the unconscious spring that unites all people,” she once told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Ms. Mueller, who was living at the Admiral at the Lake retirement community, died Friday of aftereffects of pneumonia, according to her daughter Jenny. She was 96.
“She’s a classic American immigrant success story,” her daughter said, “and also the classic story not just of immigrant success but also of refugee contribution to this country’s culture.”
A teacher, lecturer, critic and author of six books of poetry, Ms. Mueller earned the Pulitzer in 1997 for “Alive Together: New and Selected Poems.”
She was 73 and living in Lake Forest when she won the award. The announcement came by telegram, she told the Associated Press. A Western Union operator called to read her the news: “You were awarded the Pulitzer poetry prize today. Congratulations.” Then the operator added, “It’s nice to deliver good news for a change.”
Ms. Mueller said she was stunned and overwhelmed. “I had no idea I was in the running,” she said in a Sun-Times interview.
“But I will not deny that I enjoy having recognition and have people come to my readings and buy my books and tell me that they really respond to my poetry,” she told the AP. “I don’t want to just put my poetry in the drawer.”
Her work is taught in colleges across the country. It’s a popular choice for teens who recite verse in Poetry Out Loud, a program of the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation. Her life and work also have become increasingly popular objects of study in her native Germany, her daughter said.
Former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove — another Pulitzer winner — once praised her in The Washington Post for “the disingenuous lyric whose darker undertones reverberate long after we have floated on its sunlit surface.”
She was a familiar figure in Chicago book circles. In 1990, she received the Carl Sandburg Literary Arts Award from Sandburg’s daughter, Helga. She spoke on panels with Studs Terkel, a fan who said after the Pulitzer win: “I was wondering when she was going to win the big one.”
She attended readings by a writer she deeply admired — Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks — to soak up the beauty of her fellow Pulitzer winner’s words.
And her compositions inspired Max Raimi, a violist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, to write music that was performed by the CSO under the direction of maestro Riccardo Muti. Her poetry “hit me between the eyes,” Raimi said.
Ms. Mueller was dubbed the laureate of Lake Forest. For decades, she and her husband Paul raised their family on the outskirts of the North Shore suburb, near land still populated by cows.
She was born Elisabeth Neumann and grew up in Hamburg, where her father’s anti-Nazi stance ended his teaching career. Fritz C. Neumann left Germany and worked at schools in France and Italy, giving lessons to German Jewish children who’d faced persecution in German schools. Eventually, he found work in the Midwest.
She recounted those days in “Curriculum Vitae”:
My father was busy eluding the monsters. My mother
told me the walls had ears. I learned the burden of secrets.
In 1939, she and her mother Ilse and sister Ingeborg fled Germany to join him. They lived in Winnetka and later in Indiana, where her father taught French and German at what is now the University of Evansville.
Young Lisel attended the university, where she met her future husband Paul Mueller. “They were both very romantic and big lovers of the arts,” their daughter said. They married in 1943 while he was on leave from serving in the Army in World War II. Ms. Mueller was not yet 20.
“They loved each other all their lives,” their daughter said.
His support was crucial to Ms. Mueller’s achievements, according to their daughter. In those days, without any academic appointments, “She made a career, even though she was a ‘suburban Illinois housewife,’ and that does not happen without the support of her husband,” she said. He worked as an editor for Commerce Clearing House.
Ms. Mueller said being an immigrant may have contributed to a freshness in her poetry. “I totally escaped all those things like ‘Columbus’ — you know, ‘Behind him lay the gray Azores…’ — that most poets in this country have had to put up with,” she told the Chicago Daily News in 1976. “So I didn’t have that influence to overcome. You might say I began as a child of my century, with my first introduction coming from Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louise Bogan, Eliot and Wallace Stevens.”
“My poems are very personal. They generally start from a concrete experience, a specific situation, and then they take off to something else,” she said in a 1976 Sun-Times interview. “Years ago, when one of my daughters still had trouble with concepts of time, she made a list headed, ‘Things I will need in the past.’ That heading triggered a poem I called ‘Palindrome.’ It was about a woman moving backward in time, from death to birth.”
She wrote literary criticism for the Chicago Daily News and Poetry magazine; taught at Elmhurst College, Goddard College, the University of Chicago and Warren Wilson College; and helped found the Chicago Poetry Center. During the Carter administration, Ms. Mueller was invited to the White House for a night to honor poetry.
In 2002, she won the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. In 1981, she received the National Book Award for her collection, “The Need to Hold Still.” In 1975, she was recognized with the Lamont Poetry Selection Award from the Academy of American Poets for her second book, “The Private Life.”
Her most recent honor came last year, when she was awarded a federal Order of Merit from her native country. German Consul General Wolfgang Moessinger pinned the award to her at the ceremony at the Admiral at the Lake, 929 W. Foster.
Ms. Mueller is also survived by her daughter Lucy and one grandchild. Arrangements are pending.
Read the namesake poem from Lisel Mueller’s Pulitzer-winning collection:
Speaking of marvels, I am alive
together with you, when I might have been
alive with anyone under the sun,
when I might have been Abelard’s woman
or the whore of a Renaissance pope
or a peasant wife with not enough food
and not enough love, with my children
dead of the plague. I might have slept
in an alcove next to the man
with the golden nose, who poked it
into the business of stars,
or sewn a starry flag
for a general with wooden teeth.
I might have been the exemplary Pocahontas
or a woman without a name
weeping in Master’s bed
for my husband, exchanged for a mule,
my daughter, lost in a drunken bet.
I might have been stretched on a totem pole
to appease a vindictive god
or left, a useless girl-child,
to die on a cliff. I like to think
I might have been Mary Shelley
in love with a wrongheaded angel,
or Mary’s friend, I might have been you.
This poem is endless, the odds against us are endless,
our chances of being alive together
still we have made it, alive in a time
when rationalists in square hats
and hatless Jehovah’s Witnesses
agree it is almost over,
alive with our lively children
who–but for endless ifs–
might have missed out on being alive
together with marvels and follies
and longings and lies and wishes
and error and humor and mercy
and journeys and voices and faces
and colors and summers and mornings
and knowledge and tears and chance.