Lisel Mueller on Poetic “Apprenticeship”: Excerpted from
“Learning to Play by Ear”
“Apprenticeship: the word conjures up centuries of young men standing at the easel or the blacksmith's forge, in the tannery or the tailor shop, learning how to do something and how to do it well. . . . And it brings to mind a particular folk tale, as told by the Brothers Grimm, whose hero has never known fear and sets out to learn what he has been missing. Like other young men, he travels and finds master teachers who think they have surefire methods of scaring him. But of course it's no use; he appears unteachable. His experience with fear comes when he least expects it, but he instantly recognizes it as the real thing, and he shivers. Let's say he is the poet and seized by the ‘shock of recognition'; he had to discover the deep-down mystery which no one could explain to him, and until he did all the techniques in the world were wasted on him.
“In this case the apprentice is a she, and she does not know where the impulse to transform feeling into form and language comes from. She is myself; and I am unusual among American poets only because the language I write in is my second language, thrust upon me at the age of fifteen, when I arrived in Evansville, Indiana from Nazi Germany. . . . At fifteen you want more than anything to be accepted, assimilated into the environment around you – the loathsome term ‘peer group' had not been invented – and though I was never to overcome my natural condition as a loner, the motivation to blend into the prevailing culture was strong, if not entirely conscious. Besides, I had to pass my history and English classes. . . . And even when I had every song on the ‘Hit Parade' down cold, there was the puzzle of metaphor. For a long time, I did not make the connection between ‘a blanket of blue' and the sky, nor did I realize that the ‘deep purple' which falls (over sleepy garden walls) was the shadows of early evening.
“Perhaps it was this initial inability to absorb metaphor in English that caused me to be left unimpressed by the poets we studied in high school. . . . But during my one year of high school a classmate introduced me to Carl Sandburg, and I was hooked. . . . Sandburg's unadorned, muscular, straightforward diction lured me as the painted women under street lamps lured the farm boys in a city named Chicago. It was my first encounter with a modern idiom in poetry, and it was the right one for me at this point, because it was not difficult. Literal yet evocative, I found it as exotic as the night train on which someone softly says, ‘Omaha’.
“Sandburg and adolescence conspired, and I started to write poems. Terrible poems. Cliches that came out of loneliness and daydreams. But without Sandburg I might not have found even a beginning. Later, in college, I fell in love with Keats. . . . I was writing poetry fairly regularly during my college years, but I never consciously studied a poem to see ‘how it was done,' nor read a book on prosody or a poet's discussion of the process. If such books existed during World War II, I was not aware of them, and of course there were no poetry readings.
“When I outgrew this phase . . . I stopped writing altogether. ‘Life' took over: marriage, jobs, graduate school, friends. Fortunately, one of my jobs was in a library and I took books home, including volumes of poetry. . . In 1953 my mother died. Whenever someone asks me the inevitable question, ‘What made you a poet?' I remember a calm, sunny afternoon a few weeks after her death, when I sat in a lovely backyard in Evanston, Illinois and felt an immense need to put some of what I felt about her death and that particular afternoon into a poem: to ‘say' my feelings, vent them, put them into some context I could understand. . . . I was 29, and it was the first poem I had written in about 8 years.
“During my college years, writing poems was an amateur activity. . . . now I began my training, which consisted of reading all the volumes of poetry and little magazines I could lay my hands on, teaching myself to read for instruction as well as pleasure, and setting myself exercises. There were no creative writing classes and few handbooks on craft then. . . . I learned about traditional forms and metrics, since most of the poems published in those days employed metric or syllabic patterns and used rhyme and assonance. I worked in formal patterns for a while, but eventually returned to free verse because I found the echoes of the formal masters too strong for my incubating voice.
“But I was getting another kind of education as well. Two daughters arrived four years apart. The question of whether a writer can live the traditional life of wife and mother without injury to her writing is of deep concern to many women poets and novelists. We have moving statements by Adrienne Rich, Tillie Olson, and Ruth Whitman among others about the conflicts and deprivations they suffered. I can only speak for myself, and I was determined to have both. There is no question that bringing up small children without help takes, and takes away, a tremendous amount of time and energy. Not only that; the kind of energy – the giving of one's spirit, mind and body to a child who needs that nourishment for growth as a plant needs carbohydrates for photosynthesis – is similar to the energy that goes into making poems. But the process is reciprocal; watching one's child become a person is not only infinitely gratifying and humanizing, it is also instructive about growth, transformation, possibility: matters that poets deal with.
“. . . My first book of poems did not come out until 1965, when I was 41.
“For convenience I'll end my story right here, as though it were an old-fashioned story and book publication the wedding. In reality, as we all know, apprenticeship, like life after the wedding, goes on indefinitely. In some ways it gets harder. Once the tools, tricks and secrets of the trade become second nature, you lose the attention to technique which has served as a margin of safety. Suddenly you are nakedly exposed to the dangerous process of bringing a poem into existence. You become less sure; you understand why writers put off writing, know the fear of failure, which has nothing to do with what the world calls failure. You are asked to dive into the pool, and you did not know the deep end was that deep. The models in your head have fallen silent, and the rules want to be broken. If anything, the process of making a poem becomes more mysterious and terrifying.”
Note: excerpted from Lisel Mueller, “Learning to Play by Ear,” in Learning to Play by Ear (Juniper Press, 1990). © Lisel Mueller