Dear Marilyn Nelson,

I have read and chosen your poem “Moonlily” for the dear poet project. When I read the title, I thought of the Moon Lily flower, but the poem was not what I had expected. Your poem has a level of depth in its own way, and I felt that I could relate to your poem very well. The poem reminds me of when I was younger and played with my friends at recess.

I think your poem was so interesting because of the way it was written and it really stood out to me. It makes me reminisce about the times of being a “kid” and playing games. The girls you express in this poem show their true colors at recess and go back to their respectful acts during learning time. The girls forget about all of their worries and play carelessly. They all play together no matter the color of their skin, nor worrying about what the other kids would think of them.

I believe the allegorical meaning of your poem is to show how people can change by writing about how children behave during school, but in different areas. When people feel comfortable in a specific situation, they are not afraid to show their “real self,” but they act different in other situations, too. The girls represent people’s actions, but also how some people may not care about their responsibilities during their freetime. This poem is a great example of human behavior around different people.

I honestly love how you wrote, “ bay in a room of palominos.” I wonder if you meant that you felt different than everyone else. Where was your inspiration for this statement that is so powerful? Did you ever feel so alone in a room full of people when you were younger, or even at an older age? At times, I feel that I can truly relate to this poem and feeling isolated, even when surrounded by many.

Thank you for taking time to read my letter to you and I hope you can respond to my letter. I already feel that you are remarkably inspirational from just reading this poem and listening to you read it.


Grade 9
Mays Landing, NJ

I want to thank everyone who wrote to me for their insights and questions, and for sharing their own memories of recess! Since you zeroed in on the same things, I’d like to address my response to Jillian, Sarah, Bridget, and Sofia as a group. Greetings and salutations!

To tell the truth, Jillian, I don’t think I knew the Moon Lily is a real flower! Thanks for teaching me that! (And thank goodness for google!) As far as I can remember, in the process of writing the poem I was just trying to come up with a name a 10-year old girl would think extraordinarily beautiful. But now that you’ve showed me the actual Moon Lily, I can imagine someone finding symbolism in a white flower that’s highly toxic! I’m so glad you didn’t yield to that temptation!

Yes, Sofia, you’re right that the girls are presented as “a unity, a ‘herd,’ emphasized by the repetition of ‘we’” That’s very good! I hadn’t noticed that before you pointed it out. Yes, they are sort of dissolved in a oneness as they play, and reality is replaced by imagination. I like your description of them as young mares on the playground, and I love your saying you remember watching girls transform as they ran across the field and became horses, witches, huntresses and lionesses. Are you a poet, by any chance?

Sarah, i like the way you picked up on the word “filing” as the children return to their desks. It’s such a reduction, isn’t it, from the freedom of running and yelling, to the uniformity of lining up like little soldiers and being marched back to the classroom? Thanks for pointing out “the theme of freedom of imagination,” and pointing out my descriptions of what freedom means to the girls. Yes, “self-named.” I think I was thinking of times in history when people’s names were taken away:  people enslaved, for instance, people urged to accept “American” names. Women giving up their birth names when they marry…  I’ve been noticing how many great writers and artists have named themselves. That’s not in the poem; I’m just musing. But I do think this is relevant to the freedom of these girls calling themselves by names they choose.

Yes, Bridget, when the girl speaking in the poem returns to the real world of the classroom, she is returned to the reality of racial division in the nation. Although it’s not said in the poem, I think by implication that “one bay” in a “palomino” world would feel the burden of that difference of color. The poem doesn’t say anything about that, but I suppose the fact that its sub-title gives the date of 1956 would give a reader who knows something about the history of race relations and the Civil Rights Movement some idea of what the world was like outside of that classroom. 

Sarah, you asked whether the poem is in free verse to symbolic the untamed children. Actually, it’s not in free verse: it’s a sonnet, with each line being iambic pentameter. I know a lot of people can’t hear rhythm in verse, but maybe if you count the syllables in each line, you’ll be able to see how un-free the verse is! But you’re right, it doesn’t rhyme. Yes, “self-named” and “untamed” does have a purpose, which, I guess, is to add emphasis. But so much of the writing process is intuitive; I’m not always conscious of why I make choices.

I guess the bottom line in this poem is that I was trying to show the girls transformed into something like an animated scene of a fantasy herd of beautiful, galloping wild horses. And then when the bell rings, the wild mares are transformed into obedient, ordinary children tied to the narrownesses of the 1950’s America they have inherited.  

All best to you young mares—

Marilyn Nelson

read more 2018 dear poet letters