Pulitzer Poet: Lisel Mueller

April 14, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, a conversation with this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and to Elizabeth Farnsworth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The poet is Lisel Mueller, who won the prize for “Alive Together,” a collection representing 35 years of her work. Her father was a German intellectual whose opposition to Hitler forced the family to flee to America in 1939, when Lisel Mueller was 15.

She has published seven books of poetry and has won, among other prizes, the National Book Award and the Carl Sandburg Prize. She has taught writing at Goddard College and the University of Chicago. And she joins us now from Chicago. Thank you very much for being with us, Mrs. Mueller, and congratulations.

LISEL MUELLER, Pulitzer Prize Winner, Poetry: Thanks. I’m delighted to be here.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Were you surprised when you heard that you’d won the Pulitzer?

LISEL MUELLER: I was totally surprised. I had no idea because I had not been told or seen any kind of a list that told me I was a finalist. So I–I expected nothing at all.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: English was your second language. How did you happen to become a poet?

LISEL MUELLER: I guess that’s a good question and not one I can explain fully. When I was in college, I did do some writing of poetry, somewhat inspired, I think at that time, by Carl Sandburg, because English was still relatively new to me, and Sandburg, of course, wrote in a very easy-to-understand, very colloquial and informal manner.

And I think that encouraged me to start writing. But after college I didn’t write for 10 years. I thought, oh, well, that was adolescent stuff. And I didn’t seem to feel any need to write until the occasion of my mother’s death, which occurred when I was 29 years old.

My mother had only been 54 when she died. And I guess strong emotion sometimes releases needs inside a person that we didn’t know we had or had forgotten we had. And in my case that seemed to be the need to express myself in language, to talk about my feelings for my mother, about my mother’s death in language. And once that was unlocked, that need, I knew that that was what I had to do the rest of my life.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Could you read us that poem.

LISEL MUELLER: Yes. It’s called “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 impatience, and placed my grief in the mouth of language, the only thing that would grieve with me.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It became your way of grieving, to write about it. And isn’t poetry also a way for you to fix the impermanent? You write in one poem as if what exists, exists so that it can be lost to become precious.

LISEL MUELLER: Yes, oh, very much so. Memory and poetry go together, absolutely. It is a matter of preserving and of remembering things.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There’s a sense in your poetry that everything could have been different for you; that–in one poem you write, “Perhaps a woman I do not know is facing the day with the heavy heart that by all rights could have been mine.” Is that because of your experience in Nazi, Germany, do you think?

LISEL MUELLER: I don’t know if that really has to do with it, but I am always haunted by the sense that I could have been someone else, there but for the grace of God go I, that kind of thing, and that’s a reason I chose as my title poem, or as a title for the book, the poem “Alive Together, which is in the book and was written quite a few years ago, and which is a kind of catalogue of all the people I was thinking of who I might have been at various times in history, and the miracle and the accident that it is that any of us are who we are.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you have a goal when you’re writing poems? Is there some purpose you want to achieve when you write?

LISEL MUELLER: Not really, not consciously. Something just comes to me. Usually it’s the juxtaposition of two things. I see something in a new context in which I had not seen it before, and this excites me, and I mind this, try to figure it out in a poem. So that you might say that was my purpose at the moment that I write that poem, but I can’t speak of an overall purpose, no.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read “Naming the Animals” for us.

LISEL MUELLER: Yes. “Naming the Animals.” “Until he named the horse ‘horse,’ hoofs left no print on the earth, manes had not been invented, swiftness and grace were not married. Until he named the cow ‘cow,’ no one slept standing up, no one saw through opaque eyes, food was chewed only once.

Only after he named the fish ‘fish,’ did the light put on skins of yellow and silver oils, revealing itself as a dancer and high jump champion of the world. Just as later he had to name the woman ‘love,’ before he could put on the knowledge of who she was with her small hands.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What a tribute to words and the power of language.

LISEL MUELLER: Well, language seems to be something that obsesses me. I’m always writing about it. I wrote a long poem to Helen Keller. I mean, it’s addressed to Helen Keller, which is in this book. And Helen, of course, was someone who had no language until she was six years old. And it was unlocked to her by her teacher.

I think everyone knows that scene at the pump where water ran over her hand and the teacher wrote the word “water” into her hand, and she understood at that moment not only that the water was the name for that thing that ran over her hand, but that everything in the world had a name; and that all of a sudden there was a world for her out there that she could order and describe.

And it was interesting that after she–much later in life when she wrote her memoirs, she could not say anything about the first six years. There was no way she could speak about it. It was just darkness, as she put it, because she had not had language, so there was no way she could order that experience.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Mrs. Mueller, congratulations on the fine tribute that you’ve had from the Pulitzer Prize panel for your language. Thank you very much.

LISEL MUELLER: Thank you very much.