Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 260

Carolyn Kizer's poem Bitch is about a woman—the speaker—who runs into someone with whom she had a previous relationship. The other person is unnamed and is simply referred to as "he." The fact that the speaker refers to the person as "he" and not by name or by a title implies intimacy and that the speaker may still have feelings for this person.

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Throughout the poem, the speaker has to confront the feelings that arise upon seeing this other person. The title of the poem takes on a metaphorical meaning and is used throughout the poem to establish the dualities of the speaker. On one hand, she is still like a subservient creature to the old acquaintance. On the other hand, she is a disagreeable woman.

At first the speaker is angry about seeing this acquaintance. All of the mean feelings bubble up and the speaker has to try to keep those from reaching the surface. "I say to the bitch inside me, don't start growling."

But then after the other person says something nice to the speaker and looks at her in the way like he had in "the old days," the bitch inside her softens. Again, the speaker has to keep the feelings in check. "Down, girl! Keep your distance."

Kizer writes this poem with a creative style so that in this one poem there are three different forms of communication occurring:

1) What the speaker says to "he"
2) What the speaker says to the "bitch" (her inner self)
3) What the speaker says to us, the readers

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 444

The speaker of Carolyn Kizer’s “Bitch” provides a satiric account of a typical encounter between her and a former lover during the unspecified period since the end of their relationship. In a single, thirty-four-line stanza, the speaker engages in a comic monologue that displays a quintessentially ironic duality: the speaker’s two simultaneous but divergent dialogues, one consisting of the speaker’s external conversation with her former lover and the other of silent admonitions, threats, and explanations to her inner self, represented in the poem as a female dog, or “bitch.”

Over the course of the monologue, the reader learns the range of the speaker’s intensely ambivalent feelings toward the ex-lover, from vicious hostility to cowed devotion to dismissive self-deprecation. Throughout the conversation with the ex-lover, the speaker masks her true feelings with unfailing politeness.

The speaker’s initial hostility whenever she and her former lover meet reveals itself in the immediate warning she gives to “the bitch inside [her]” not to start “growling”; while once the man may have been a “trespasser,” she says, he is now merely an “old acquaintance.” The conflicting feelings suggested by this conversation with her inner self are quickly dramatized: The speaker offers a first pleasantry, but “the bitch starts to bark hysterically.” However, as the pleasantries continue, “a kind word” from the man produces a dramatic change in the reaction of the inner self: “she begins to whimper./ She wants to snuggle up to him.” Now the roles are reversed as the speaker must threaten the “bitch” not to be too approachable.

The shift in the inner self’s reaction to the man, producing a consequent, if not as dramatic, shift in the speaker, doubles the layers of ambivalent emotion the speaker feels toward her former lover. Now she must explain, in apparent defense of her inner self—of her own forgetfulness of “the casual cruelties, the ultimate dismissal”—that a thoughtful word has simply reminded the “bitch” of her former devotion and of the man’s past “small careless kindnesses.” While these seem, momentarily, more important than what produced a strong but hidden enmity, the speaker maintains an external equilibrium, against both anger and forgiveness, as the pleasantries with her former love continue.

She instructs her inner self—herself—that she was not right for the man, dismissing herself as “too demonstrative, too clumsy,/ Not like the well-groomed pets of his new friends.” At that, the speaker utters some last, cheerful but hurried words of good-bye as she drags the “bitch” off “by the scruff,” perhaps in fear of any further weakening of her will—perhaps, too, in shameful discomfort at her inner weakness.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 633

Kizer’s feminist poetry is often discursive, directly addressing those issues in male-female relations and of gender roles and characteristics that were at the core of late twentieth century feminist thought. On other occasions, as with “Bitch,” she abandons discursiveness in favor of narrative and dramatic representations of relational and emotional issues as they play themselves out in brief encounters or over long periods of time. In “Bitch,” Kizer approaches the narrative in the form of a satiric-quasi-dramatic monologue. Although the satire is in the gentler Horatian mode, without bitter anger or invective, it offers, perhaps, even more compassionate understanding for the subject of the folly it exposes than is typical for that mode. Kizer, the satirist, is not here ridiculing some “other”; rather, she is incisively poking fun at the very women whose lives she has championed.

The fundamental element of the poem’s satire is the representation of its speaker’s inner self as a “bitch.” The word has dual meanings. Most immediately, the word suggests men’s historical characterization of what they have perceived as harsh, complaining, even angry women as bitches, much as the inner self in the poem seems to be in her initial reaction to the former lover, or in a milder but shrewder sense, as the speaker might be characterized when excusing her inner self’s sudden obsequiousness on receipt of a kind word.

Kizer satirizes not only the male use of the word but also female acceptance of it, by playing off its original meaning in reference to a female dog, a dog that might “whimper” and “snuggle up” to its master, even one that has mistreated it. Kizer’s appropriation of the derogatory term from its male owners to stand as the title of the poem satirizes in itself the implicit victimization men claim when characterizing a woman as a bitch.

Kizer further satirizes women like her speaker in the ironic contrast between the polite banality of what the speaker actually says to her former lover and the tumultuous inner dialogue that simultaneously takes place. While the notion of split selves—external and internal—may be commonplace, it is represented in the poem to particular comic effect because of the breadth of the split and because the emotional extremes are expressed in doglike behavior. Unique locutions evincing the split self also produce comic effects, such as “I say, as I say” and the near personification of “My voice says. . . .”

The inner dialogue with the “bitch” is balanced by the outer dialogue with the former lover, and the speaker recounts both in something close to a dramatic monologue. There is no apparent silent interlocutor other than the reader to whom the speaker addresses herself, as is usually present in the form, but in the manner of dramatic monologue, the reader learns much about the speaker from the way in which she purposely and inadvertently reveals herself while speaking. These revelations are manifold. They emerge from the direct narrative account, from the separate dialogues with her inner self and her former lover, and from the final, subtle, but odd redirection of the speaker’s voice that takes place in the final three lines.

Whereas the speaker’s remarks to the “bitch” through most of the poem have always been part of the dialogue during the encounter with the former lover, in the final three lines they become, instead, part of the narrative account of the incident: “You gag/ As I drag you off by the scruff,/ Saying, ‘Goodbye! Goodbye! Nice to have seen you again.’” This displacement of the silent interlocutor from the reader to the inner self makes uncertain precisely to whom the speaker has been addressing herself, to what end, and to what ultimate conclusion on the part of the reader about the speaker.

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