Dear Marilyn Nelson,

My name is Sarah, and I am currently a sophomore in Massachusetts. I have recently read your poem “Moonlily,” and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There were aspects of the poem that spoke to me because I could picture the events in my mind, and really feel the girls’ shift between being horses and being in reality. I remember being a girl in elementary school and experiencing those same simple joys.

I like how different parts of the poem spark different images in my mind. Some parts serve as a window into the girl’s minds, as, mentally, they are horses: “We gallop circles around the playground, / whinnying, neighing, and shaking our manes” (3-4). This is interesting because I can picture what is going on inside the imaginations of the girls. They become horses of every color; they gallop around cheerfully. This is what they truly see in their minds as they go about their recess. I especially admire the contrast between the imaginative parts of the poem, when the girls are in the midst of their fun, to other pieces that demonstrate their reintegration into society.

Later in the poem, I feel like I can see the children filing back into the school. They must leave their imaginary play behind: “The bell produces metamorphosis. / Still hot and flushed, we file back to our desks” (12-13). The way the poem shifts from the girl’s fantasy of being beautiful animals, to being regular children having to return after their short break, is really important to me. As a high schooler I interpret this as a demonstration of just how quickly good things often end. No matter how much fun the girls have, it will always come to an end, and they will have to return to their studies. I have undoubtedly experienced this in my own life. I am reminded of how special that small amount of free time used to be to me and my friends; having a short recess was always so much fun when I was that age.

I appreciate how this poem is able to bring me back to when I was in elementary school, and used to have a great time with my friends doing cartwheels and playing pretend. It was a time I cherished. The theme of freedom of imagination rings true to me, especially where you write, “We’re self-named, untamed, untouched, unridden. / Our plains have no fences.” (10-11). This brings back memories of my time years ago, when I was completely unburdened by homework, and free of responsibility. I used to willingly take time to be spontaneous, just like the girls playing pretend in the poem. Poems are so much more meaningful when they spark happy memories.

While I understand and appreciate the artistry of “Moonlily,” I have a few questions about it’s overall setup. Is the poem in free verse to symbolize that one is truly untamed during childhood, or is this a personal choice you made as a poet? I also noticed that there is a small rhyme in line ten where the words “Self-named,” and “Untamed,” are made to rhyme in the middle of the line. Does this have a creative purpose?

This work of literature creates vivid images and brings back joyful memories. I am happy to have stumbled upon a poem that I can relate to and appreciate so much. Thank you for your time.


Grade 10
Wilmington, MA

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

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