The City Planners

by Margaret Atwood

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

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This is an interesting poem in that the revelation of what the "city planners" of the title are, in Atwood's view, trying to conceal or control in vain is delayed until the end of the poem. For much of the early part of the poem, the speaker's horror at the "dry" suburb, in which everything is "straight" and "discouraged" and where anything disturbing the clean lines—even a splash of paint or oil—is not defined as a reaction to global and environmental decay. As a reader, words like "hysteria" make me question whether Atwood is suggesting that the clean lines of the suburb are actually trying to conceal or contain the more disordered lives of the families who live within, as if straight lines and neat houses can make us all the same and therefore satisfy the desire for conformity expressed by the city planners.

Later in the poem, however, it becomes clear that the speaker's horror is based in greater things than these. Each of the city planners is pictured sitting within his own "blizzard," trying to draw lines and boundaries on a town as if this will somehow forestall the true tragedy which is coming—an environmental one, in which everything will eventually slip into the sea.

The themes of the poem, then, seem to be environmental disaster as well as the human desire to fiercely control small details rather than confront the real issues.

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The City Planners explores a global warming angle in the theme of man vs. nature. Expressing a horror at the calm neatness of suburban neighborhoods in the face of  environmental disaster, the poem subtly uses the metaphor of a glacier to remind us of the slow effects of global warming. Oil, shown as spilled in garages, also reminds us of the hidden environmental disaster that lurks beneath the seemingly safe and controlled suburban environment. The ending of the poem shows how easily a natural disaster can destroy that safety and make a mess of the social planning.

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Summarize the poem "The City Planners" by Margaret Atwood.

Margaret Atwood's poem "The City Planners" is written in seven stanzas. The first two stanzas are much longer than the remaining five, and these stanzas provide the main reasoning behind Atwood's disdain for the construction of a city.

In the first stanza, Atwood tells the reader about how she sees the city as she drives around on a Sunday in August. She tells of the city in regards to its offensive sanitaries (pedantic rows of houses, sanitary trees, with only the sound of a mower cutting almost mathematical lines in the grass of lawns).

The second stanza continues to describe the bland and thoughtless planning that went into the building of the city homes. The homes are described as being all even and smelling of the same exact things.

The third stanza shows the reader what is to come of the homes: "the future cracks of the plaster"; while the fourth stanza continues to speak to the inevitable crumbling of the homes.

It is not until the sixth stanza that Atwood comes to name those she blames for the lack of imagination and overall sanitary building of the homes. For Atwood, the planners seem to be more concerned with boxing themselves in, "concealed from each other," than they are with creating beauty.

The seventh and eighth stanza go on to prove Atwood's dislike of those who planned the city. She states that they are simply sketchers who wish to create order in a place of madness.

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

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

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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