Throughout, readers encounter imagery related to being and not being thirteen. The speaker has an insight into the struggles a thirteen-year-old girl is going to go through and very simply addresses them in these lines of ‘Portrait of Girl with Comic Book.‘ They’re going to be easier for someone who has experienced thirteen as a girl to understand than for someone who hasn’t.
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‘Portrait of Girl with Comic Book’ by Phyllis McGinley is an interesting poem that addresses what happens when someone turns thirteen.
The speaker is considering what it’s like to move from twelve to thirteen, especially for girls. It’s not a time for toys, nor is it a time for boys. There is no intellect, grace, or wit. It’s uncomfortable and hard to adjust to. Someone who is thirteen is going to struggle to fit in and know what they’re supposed to do or like.
You can read the full poem here.
Throughout this piece, McGinley engages with themes of change and growing up. The speaker knows how full of discontent one’s teenage years can be, especially thirteen. Any girl should expect to be torn between childhood and adulthood. This is all part of growing up. Eventually, one’s going to have intellect and grace, but not at thirteen.
Thirteen’s no age at all. Thirteen is nothing.
Or intellect, or grace.
In the first lines of ‘Portrait of Girl with Comic Book,’ the speaker begins by addressing what “thirteen” as an age represents or “is.” It’s an in-between period, the speaker decides. It’s a time when there is “not wit,” nor is there “powder on the face.” There is no “intellect” or “grace.” Thirteen represents nothing but a transition between what twelve was and what comes next. The poet uses accumulation in these lines in order to collect words and experiences that have something or nothing to do with being thirteen. These add up, allowing the reader to look over them and understand quickly what they’re aiming to convey.
Twelve has its tribal customs. But thirteen
Is neither boys in battered cars nor dolls,
(A month, at most); scorns jumpropes in the spring;
The next few lines add to this, making it clear that thirteen is not an age anyone should really want to be. Twelve had its “tribal customs,” those associated with childhood and youth. But, thirteen is different. It’s not a time for boys or toys. It’s neither childhood nor adulthood. While someone is thirteen, they’re going to move quickly through things they like, realizing they actually dislike them. A month is about the amount of time one is going to be satisfied with one thing or another.
Structure and Form
‘Portrait of Girl with Comic Book’ by Phyllis McGinley is a ten-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEF. This is an unusual pattern that uses an alternate rhyme scheme with two unrhymed lines at the end. McGinley also uses literary devices to help create a feeling of unity in the text.
McGinley makes use of several literary devices in ‘Portrait of Girl with Comic Book.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: This can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point—for example, the transition between lines five and six as well as lines nine and ten.
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “matinees” and “misses’” in line three and “Twelve” and “tribal” in line five.
- Caesura: occurs when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line. For example, “Or intellect, or grace” and “(A month, at most); scorns jumpropes in the spring.”
The speaker is someone who is older than thirteen but knows what it’s like to transition from twelve to thirteen. They have an insight into the troubles young people go through, no matter if they’re girls or boys.
The meaning is that change comes to all children’s lives, leading them into adulthood. One is eventually not going to be happy with toys and reach an age when they start to think about the future and boys.
McGinley wrote this poem in order to explore the discontent that accompanies turning thirteen. It’s a time when one isn’t an adult or a child. They’re somewhere in-between the two ages and therefore have trouble fitting in and knowing what they’re supposed to do.
The tone is analytical and direct. The speaker is well aware of what thirteen portends. They can address the fact that thirteen is synonymous with discontent and change and know well that nothing can change that.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Portrait of a Girl with Comic Book’ should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Tall’ by Carol Ann Duffy – explores the difficulty of social mobility for women, suggesting that they have trouble fitting in.
- ‘On Turning Ten’ by Billy Collins – a poem that talks about the poet’s feelings when he turned ten years old.
- ‘Childhood’ by Markus Natten – is a poem about the childhood of the poet. The poet talks about the transition of the poet from his childhood to maturity.