The City Planners by Margaret Atwood

Cruising these residential Sunday

streets in dry August sunlight:

what offends us is

the sanities:

the houses in pedantic rows, the planted

sanitary trees, assert

levelness of surface like a rebuke

to the dent in our car door.

No shouting here, or

shatter of glass: nothing more abrupt

than the rational whine of a power mower

cutting a straight swath in the discouraged grass.

But though the driveways neatly

sidestep hysteria

by being even, the roofs all display

the same slant of avoidance to the hot sky,

certain things:

the smell of spilt oil a faint

sickness lingering in the garages,

a splash of paint on brick surprising as a bruise,

a plastic hose poised in a vicious

coil; even the too-fixed stare of the wide-windows

give momentary access to

the landscape behind or under

the future cracks in the plaster

when the houses, capsize, will slide

obliquely into clay seas, gradual as glaciers

that right now nobody notices.

That is where the City Planners

with the insane faces of political conspirators

territories, concealed from each other,

each in his own private blizzard;

guessing directions, they sketch

transitory lines rigid as wooden borders

on a wall in the white vanishing air

tracing the panic of suburb

order in a bland madness of snows.

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4 Responses to The City Planners by Margaret Atwood

  1. coreachick says:

    The City Planners: Margaret Atwood
    ‘The City Planners’ by Margaret Atwood, is essentially a recount of the persona driving through a suburban street, and her thoughts based on the suburb she is driving through. The theme of this poem is perfection, uniformity, man’s attempts to control nature, and lust of power (the city planners). As the persona drives, she takes note of the utter perfection and uniformity of everything in the street, something which ‘offends’ her; the ‘sanities / the houses in pedantic rows, ‘planted sanitary trees’. The use of the words ‘sanities’, ‘sanitary’ connotate emotionlessness, coldness, soullessness; everything is clean, perfect and ‘sterile’ from the ‘filth’ usually in less perfect suburbs. The persona feel uncomfortable here or initimidated, for she does not belong here in this perfect place for she does not meet up to its standards, something which the ‘sanitary trees’, though the use of personification, appear to rebuke her for. Not only is the suburb perfect in appearance, the people living in the suburb are deemed to be perfect too; for there is ‘No shouting here, or / shatter of glass, nothing more abrupt than the rational whine of a power mower.’ Far from being ideal to the persona however, it is unnerving. In the second stanza however, the persona begin to see through the mask of perfection the suburb wears, and begin to see little imperfections, such as ‘the smell of spilt oil’, ‘a splash of paint on a brick’, a plastic hose poised’, etc. All these imperfections are described with negative connotations of metaphors; such as faint sickness, bruise, and vicious coils, things which are hurtful, contagious, sickly: imperfections in a perfect world is like disease in a sterile place; unwanted and shunned. Simple imperfect actions are viewed to be harmful to the perfect suburb. Throughout the second stanza there has been absolutely no mention of any human movement, making it seem as if the sub-division is empty. This could metaphorically indicate that the people living here live empty, monotonous lives that are without meaning. Linked with enjambment with the second stanza, the third stanza immediately goes on to talk of her imagined end to the suburban street: ‘the future cracks in the plaster / when the house, capsized, will slide obliquely into the clay seas, gradual as glaciers’ She predicts the destruction of perfection in the street at the hands of the powerful forces of nature such as seas and glaciers: and this destruction is a consequence for having dared to control nature (Stanza 1: ‘planted sanitary trees’, ‘discouraged grass’: they give a sense that they have been enslaved by humans to fit their perfect lives, shaped to be perfect – not allowed to grow wildly and uncontrollably in the way they are naturally supposed to. Nature is also damaged for the creations of civilization and suburbs to be created). The poet is trying to give power back to nature here, and stating that nature will eventually, definitely rise once again and break down these suburbs. The fourth stanza finally introduces the namesakes of the poem: The City Planners. They are described as having ‘insane faces of political conspirators: giving them images of power hungry and greedy people who do things for their own profit, as well as having some kinds of god complexes. The god complex part is somewhat understandable: they are the ones to plan out the suburbs to be perfect, and also controlling the residents’ lives to be perfect and empty as well; by prescribing what life should be like. The last line of the stanza show that the city planners are ‘each in his own private blizzard’ – that is, they do not conform to nature, and have their own nature, a wild, uncontrollable blizzard that is harmful to other things. The last two stanzas of the poem have the same message; that in the end, the creations of the city planners will eventually amount to nothing; for they ‘sketch….lines….in the white vanishing air’ and ;’tracing……in a bland madness of snows.’ The air is vanishing, and snow is known for erasing tracks on it when a new batch of now falls; both have themes of vanishing and new beginnings. Notably, both air and snow are forces of nature: the creations of the city planners will be destroyed by nature.

  2. Trudy Ani Asamani says:

    I am greatly impressed by this interpretation. A good job well done.

  3. Hale says:

    Some people claim that city planners are real estate agents. I don’t think this makes sense. Any comments on this?

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