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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 228

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The themes of Carolyn Kizer's 34-line poem "Bitch" (published within a collection of poems in 1984) include feminism and self-control.

The feminist element in Kizer's poem presents the word "bitch" (adducing the popular dual meanings of "insolent woman" and "female dog") in the opening two lines, and a total of three times within the poem. The context is the speaker's encounter with a former lover, whom she is determined to treat decently (however hard it may be) in this public setting. The bitch "barks hysterically" and also "whimpers," which suggests that the poem is availing itself of the latter definition, though occasion requires that the literal definition must be the former. The reconciliation process is where one learns what it means to the poem to be a feminist (i.e., acknowledging the "bitch" in both senses).

The self-control is the most fascinating and creative portrayal. Presenting her inner self as a "bitch" is a clever perversion of personification on the part of the speaker (and poet). When she encounters her offensive interlocutor, she says, "Now, when he and I meet, after all these years, / say to the bitch inside me, don’t start growling." Using the word "growling" so early in the poem immediately provides ample imagery to suppose that this "bitch" is in fact walking alongside the speaker on four legs, rather than inside of her, emotionally festering.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

Throughout much of her poetry, Kizer seeks to elucidate the historical and contemporary situation of women in a male-dominated world. She does this not only by noting and representing the destructive characteristics of male behavior and drives but also by calling attention to what, in “Pro Femina” (1964), she calls the independent but “maimed” condition of women. In “Bitch,” this wounded condition of the speaker is everywhere and increasingly present. It is in the title, in which a truly felt sense of belittlement confronts demeaning male name-calling. It is in the speaker’s own representation of her inner self as a “bitch,” one that not only “bark[s] hysterically,” as men posit but also, more profoundly, may “whimper,” even “cringe,” at the most insignificant of kindnesses. It is also in the bitch’s forgetfulness, her easy willingness to remember past adoration and “the small careless kindnesses” in the face of the former lover’s greater self-absorption, boredom with her devotion, and “casual cruelties,” indeed, his “ultimate dismissal” of her.

The conceit of the “bitch” and her behavior provide the poem’s greatest, most obviously self-directed feminist satire. An easier satire lies in the speaker’s masking strong emotion with external pleasantry. While the masking is a common behavior, what draws particular sympathy from the reader is the very existence of the still unresolved, warring emotions. The speaker carries her wounds still, against much evidence in her own mind that would deny their emotional sense. Even when the poem presents the speaker as a strong woman, a woman so determined to maintain her independence from a destructive emotional attraction that she threatens to give her own inner self, the “bitch,” a “taste of the choke-chain,” the fervency of her resistance to the man reveals her wounded condition. The anger toward the ex-lover is reflected back on herself.

The speaker does express compassionate understanding for the bitch’s quick reversion to obsequious behavior, yet that compassionate tone slips all too easily, almost unnoticeably, into self-deprecation. She apparently consoles the bitch:

He couldn’t have taken you with him;You were too demonstrative, too clumsy,Not like the well-groomed pets of his new friends.

After this dismissal of herself, the speaker’s leave-taking is a desperate getaway: She drags the gagging bitch off before all self-restraint is lost. That the speaker offers the account of this act to the bitch herself, and not to the reader, suggests the speaker’s continuing inner dialogue; she contests with herself not only during the period of the encounter with the former lover but also, perhaps, at other times. The internal conversation of wounded women who seek emotional independence from unhealthy attachments to men, Kizer tells us, is not easily ended, and the “bitch” a woman may be is not the one men call her.