The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 633 words.)