What is an explication of the poem "The City Planners" by Margaret Atwood?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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A notable quality to Margaret Atwood's poem is the atmosphere of unnaturalness and sterility created in each stanza with select images and words. In the first stanza,for instance, she employs words that have no emotive powers

the houses in pedantic rows, the planted
sanitary trees, assert
levelness of surface like a rebuke
to the dent in our car door.

Certainly, the diction of this poem is connotative of the artificiality of the suburban development described. For example, the word pedantic implies the lack of practical wisdom in the design of the houses; the word sanitary also suggests that the trees have been trimmed and spaced uniformly in unnatural appearance. This commanded order of everything is "a rebuke" of real life, which has imperfections and even damage--"the dent in our car door." In fact, there is also no evidence of human life until the second stanza suggests the victimization of those subjected to the confining sterility of their environment: 

the smell of spilled 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--

all of which hint at human expression that is suppressed behind the facades of suburbia. This "momentary access to what lies "under/the future cracks in the plaster" further suggests that the city planners in their "pedantic," drawing-board design of perfect order in construction cannot prevent what life itself will force through this artificially created order and contentment. For, just as on the car of the first stanza, the imperfections of human life and nature both will manifest themselves and eradicate the false perfection of suburbia that eradicates creativity:

they sketch
transitory lines ....

tracing the panic of suburb
order in a bland madness of snows 

Diction again points to meaning. Snows creates the image of covering completely, or the wiping out of all that can be seen, including boundaries. The oxymoron of "bland madness" describes the sterile facade of suburbia that, in truth, is "madness" to people who understand the importance of individual expression and freedom to fashion their own environments. 

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