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Margaret Atwood’s poem “The City Planners” presents an unappealing picture of a city that seems so rigidly planned that it is monotonous and boring. The neighborhoods the poem describes seem too blandly reasonable:
what offends us is
the sanities (3-4)
We normally think of sanity as a good thing, but here, paradoxically, sanity is almost enough to drive one crazy: everything seems so unimaginative and so predictable that what might have seemed appealingly reasonable now seems merely “pedantic” (5), a word implying a lack of original thought. Everything in this neighborhood seems dull, repetitive, and tedious. No sign of individuality seems permitted (in fact, no residents are even mentioned, making the neighborhood seem even more lifeless than it seemed already). Even the trees seem somehow artificial. They are not old trees, with their own individual and peculiar shapes and sizes; they have been “planted” on level ground in rigid rows (5). Ironically, the only thing that seems at all distinctive, unusual, or less than perfect is the speaker’s dented car door (8). A dead piece of metal thus seems, paradoxically, more interesting even than living, growing trees.
Even the sounds in this neighborhood are monotonous and predictable:
the rational whine of a power mower
cutting a straight swath in the discouraged grass. (11-12)
The word “rational” implies pure regularity and undeviating reason. Predictably enough, the “swath” cut through the grass is “straight” – without the slightest deviation. The personified grass is “discouraged,” probably because it is kept very short and never even given a remote chance to grow or flourish.
In this neighborhood, everything is the same, including the same kinds of driveways and the same slant of roofs. The only touches of individuality are either unattractive (“the smell of spilled oil” ), or minor (“a splash of paint” ) or trivial (“a plastic hose” ). And yet all these just-mentioned details are associated with living things that are defective or flawed: the smell of oil suggests illness; the splash of paint looks like an injury; and the plastic hose is reminiscent of a dangerous snake. Ironically, the only language used so far that suggests any kind of life (aside from the passing references to the rigidly controlled trees and grass) is associated with nature that is in various ways imperfect and unappealing.
As the poem moves toward its conclusion, the speaker implies that the grim sameness and monotony of such pre-planned neighborhoods cannot last. Nature is far more powerful than any human power and will inevitably reassert itself, both in small ways and large. Ironically, the city planners who imposed such a deadening sameness on this neighborhood are presented, themselves, as almost insane (30). Ultimately their work will deteriorate, decay, and come to nothing. The final image of the poem (“a bland madness of snows”) implies that both nature and irrationality will someday reassert themselves.
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