Poetry Criticism of Tich Miller

by Magnus Schifter-Holm. Published 25th of October, 2011.

Intense childhood experiences promulgated into a well-versed work of poetry can bring about a plethora of mixed emotions. As in Charles Causley's 'Timothy Winters', Wendy Cope seeks to share the suffering of a child due to the surrounding pressures of society, using a juvenile tone, but rather than emphasising through rhymes and poetic devices, the poet delivers a first person experience, through the eyes of a classmate of the titled protagonist, who at the time, identified herself with Tich.

The following 6 blockquotes will contain
the stanzas of Tich Miller by Wendy Cope
Additionally, you can read the full piece here.

Cope does not expound any anger or resentment towards the offending parties, rather one gets a sense of detached hopelessness and resignation, at least till the fifth stanza, as she speaks about the beleaguered Tich Miller and herself, as two outcasts from the vicious, survival of the fittest context of playground politics. The childlike tone, combined with the severity of the incident described, serves to open the eyes to the troubles which young individuals face — the image of a happy go lucky childhood in a playground is instantly eroded away by the ugly depiction of the unforgiving human nature, even as children, as in that explored in William Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'. Despite the innocence, and the fun-loving characteristics in children, the poet can still vividly recall, and convey, the melancholy experienced by the social exclusion suffered in her earlier years.

Tich Miller wore glasses
with elastoplast-pink framed glasses
and had one foot three sizes larger than the other.

It is unclear whether this is a factual episode from Wendy Cope's childhood, but by exposing this traditional, yet potent concept of schoolyard bullying of being fought over not to be played with, she is clearly underlying the gravity of such circumstances, and the dire consequences of such.

When they picked teams for outdoor games
she and I were always the last two
left standing by the wire-mesh fence.

From the outset, Tich Miller is portrayed as a physically weak individual. Her two distinguishing features, are the fact that she wears glasses with frames resembling the colour of bandages, and a foot being three times larger than the other. The tone used to describe her is almost comic, using very particular diction in order to dramatise, as well as exaggerate her condition of having one foot three sizes larger than the other. The poet does not describe any other physical qualities of Tich; she focuses on her physical disadvantages, starting off the work by saying that Tich wore glasses, almost as though her physical drawbacks were her only qualities. This is emphasised by something as unimportant as the colour of the frames of her spectacles: elastoplast-pink — effectively reminding the reader of weakness of health through the image of bandages.

We avoided one another's eyes,
stooping, perhaps, to re-tie a shoelace,
or affecting interest in the flight

A possible interpretation of this, is that since they could see each other being reduced to such pathetic beings, they refused to identify with each other, thus avoiding the harsh truth about their social condition. Had they made contact with each other, it would mean that they would be acknowledging their humiliation, thus showing signs of weakness. Tubby, rather, preferred to use Tich almost as though to reassure herself, that she was not the worst from the group, convincing herself that she was the lesser dud. The use of the term usually, further validates this trail of thought, as clearly, Tubby wants to show that she was better off than Tich — she doesn't want the reader's pity. Tubby is presented to be the stronger willed of the two, as she overcame her perceived drawbacks, by mocking the flaws of others. She took the eye for an eye approach, seeking to alienate others for their own intellectual drawbacks, as they had done to her as regards her physical faults. In the sixth stanza, Tubby sheds the helpless attitude, adopting an aggressive, if bitter, approach for her social survival, something that Tich never accomplished, or never had the opportunity to do so, because of her early demise.

of some fortunate bird, and pretended
not to hear the urgent conference:
Have Tubby! No, no, have Tich!

The last, single versed stanza, completely alters the flow of the poem. While it retains the frank tone used throughout, the direct statement promptly shocks the reader. Wendy Cope does not elaborate on the sudden tragedy, leaving it up to the reader to determine the cause of death. Whether one imagines the cause to be suicide, due to her medical condition or otherwise, the important message is that Tich died around a year after she split up from her fellow outcast, and poet sought to highlight the relevance of this notion, because it is the only time the poet speaks about herself, is when the two outcasts go their separate ways. The thought of each other, not being alone in their suffering, got them through together, but when they split up, Tubby seemed to have adapted to her situation, but Tich apparently didn't, directly, or indirectly leading to tragic consequences.

Usually they chose me, the lesser dud,
and she lolloped, unselected,
to the back of the other team.

The main theme dealt in Tich Miller, is thus that of alienation, bullying, and children's suffering at the hands of an unaccepting society. The crux of the poem, is the daily humiliation that the protagonists had to face — a hardship which they had to face by themselves, in the privacy of their own ravaged self esteem. Interesting imagery that Cope subtly suggests, is that of comparing society to a prison. The use of the words wire-mesh fence and the flight of some fortunate bird bring forward the idea of a society that not only rejects, but crushes anything outside its norms and conventions; a society that is unaccepting, and unwilling to open up. Tich's physical disabilities prevent her from having the opportunity to compete within such an unforgiving society, whilst Tubby develops her own weapon to force herself into the struggle for survival.

At eleven we went to different schools.
In time I learned to get my own back,
sneering at hockey-players who couldn't spell.

A comparison may be drawn up between Wendy Cope's Tich Miller, and Penelope Lively's short prose, Clara's Day. While Cope's poem deals with the almost traditional theme of a playground adaptation of natural selection, Penelope Lively explores the hardship faced in growing up, and in coming to terms with one's sexuality. Unlike Tich Miller, where the victim suffers physical alienation, Clara seems to alienate herself, because she feels she is misunderstood and alone, not just in school, but also at home. Clara herself admits that she is confused, and does not know why she decided to walk about the school in the nude. One interpretation could be that she was trying to feel comfortable in her own body, as her mother later suggests that she had a tough time accepting the changes of puberty, saying that when her bust grew she used to sit hunched over like a spoon so no one would notice it. Clara was also looking for attention; despite stating that she had two friends, they are never mentioned again throughout the piece. She tries to be sociable, but the way the author merely mentions it casually, and does not elaborate might mean that she was not very successful at mingling with others.

Tich died when she was twelve.

Clara's insecurity and want for attention seeks to emanate from the household, as she has separated parents, and her mother does not seem to be supportive, or particularly loving, as she dedicates her time to her friend Stan instead. Stan comes out as a representative of the male gender in the story. Clara, unlike most of her classmates, does not have a boyfriend, or even be interested in having one, but Stan has a particular effect on her, being both something alluring, mysterious, and terribly frightening for her. Lively's story ends on a sad and sympathetic note, as Clara bursts into tears, possibly insinuating Clara's disappointment with the lackluster reaction of her authority figures, as her mother, and by extension, Stan, seem happy with her outburst, and don't even attempt to understand her.

Wow, you still here? Pretty cool.

Both pieces of literature emanate helplessness due to a hardship faced in growing up — hardships that the protagonists have to face alone, without guidance, or rather, being ineffective or disheartening as with the case of Clara. The exposition of these vulnerabilities catches the reader off guard, as underlying the comic way in which both pieces are written, one finds the existential problems crippling the psyche of those which an adult perceives to be care-free.

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