Margaret Atwood

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Analysis of themes, poetic devices, and attitudes in Margaret Atwood's "The City Planners"


Margaret Atwood's "The City Planners" critiques urban development and the artificiality of suburban life. Themes include environmental destruction and the suppression of natural chaos. Poetic devices like vivid imagery and enjambment emphasize the mechanical and sterile nature of planned cities. The poem's attitude is critical and disapproving, highlighting the tension between human control and nature's unpredictability.

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What poetic devices are used in Margaret Atwood's "The City Planners"?

Margaret Atwood’s poem “The City Planners” uses a variety of poetic devices to achieve poetic effectiveness.  The first two lines, for instance, open with a very heavily emphasized verb in which the first syllable (rather the second, as might have been expected) is strongly stressed. After all, the rest of the line is in perfect iambic meter: these RES i DEN tial SUN day.  These two lines also offer a good deal of alliteration (repetition of consonant sounds) involving the letter “s”:

Cruising these residential Sunday
streets in dry August sunlight. . .

More alliteration, also on the letter “s” and then also on the letters “p” and “l” as well, appears in the next several lines, the last of which includes a simile (a comparison involving “like” or “as):

what offends us is
the sanities:
the houses in pedantic rows, the planted 
sanitary trees, assert
levelness of surface like a rebuke  (3-7)

Atwood later uses personification when the speaker refers to “the discouraged grass” (12), while there is a hint of onomatopoeia (in which words sound like the things they describe) in the word “whine” in line 11. Later, the speaker uses metaphor (implied comparsion, not involving “like” or “as”) to compare a plastic hose to a dangerous snake (21-22), while assonance (similarity of vowel sounds) appears in the short “a” sounds of “cracks” and “plaster” in line 25.

Meanwhile, metaphors, alliteration, and assonance all appear in lines 26-28:

when the houses, capsized, [metaphor] will slide
obliquely into the clay seas, gradual as glaciers
that right now nobody notices.

Rhyme is not used in this poem, nor is there any obvious structure of stanzas. Perhaps Atwood avoids these signs of regularity and repetition so that her own poem will not seem as monotonous and predictable as the neighborhood the poem describes.

In any case, like most effective poems, Atwood’s work combines a variety of poetic devices, especially those of sound, thus giving the poem an interest and vividness it would otherwise lack.

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How might one analyze Margaret Atwood's poem "The City Planners"?

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” [18]), or minor (“a splash of paint” [20]) or trivial (“a plastic hose” [21]). 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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What is happening in Margaret Atwood's poem "The City Planners"?

In the poem, "The City Planners," several tract houses collapse because they've been built on ground that is not stable. The collapse is due to poor planning caused by political corruption. The houses have been built on a clay foundation—this is notoriously unstable and prone to erosion.  

The grass that might have held the ground together is shown in the first stanza to have been “discouraged.” Political conspirators are mentioned in the fifth stanza. The clay foundations are rendered as “clay seas,” in the fourth stanza.

The collapse of the houses, further, is tied to a larger failure in planning connected with our overly complacent attention to the environment, as evidenced by the mention of glaciers and oil in stanzas two and four.

Please see: for more about Margaret Atwood.

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What is Margaret Atwood's attitude towards the planners in "The City Planners"?

While many would consider it obvious to state that the attitude in a poem illustrates the attitude of the poet, it is most appropriate to assign the attitude presented in the poem to the narrator. Readers can, in some instances, illustrate through textual support or research that a poem's narrator is actually the speaker. 

In the case of Margaret Atwood's "The City Planners," one cannot be sure that the poem's narrator is Atwood herself. Therefore, the answer to the question will examine the narrator's attitude towards the city planners. 

Given the word choice of the speaker (pedantic, sanitary, rebuke, and hysteria), the narrator is very unhappy with the city planners. They have insured, through their planning, that the majority of natural images (the sun, naturally growing trees, and snow) are over-managed and (in some cases) obliterated from view all together. 

Essentially, the speaker despises the city planners because they have insured they have complete and utter control over all aspects of the area. They have gone so far as to even remove all aspects of naturally occurring nature. 

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How does Margaret Atwood's "The City Planners" present the image of nature critically?

Margaret Atwood's writings tend to speak to science fiction, nature, or feminism (as a whole, but not limited to). Her works which include images of nature tend to elevate the importance of nature within the world. 

Her poem "The City Planners" speaks against the planning which has gone into the sanitary structure of the residential streets described in the poem. This is illuminated by the fact that her word choice illustrates the negativity she holds against the city planers (based upon the decisions they have made). 

For example, Atwood's narrator uses the words "offends," "pedantic," and "sanitary" to help readers to "see" the rows of streets laid out before them. The sun is shunned by the slanted roofs. The man-made objects (paint, plastic hoses, and "too-fixed" windows) cover the natural beauty of the world with ugly artificial things. 

Atwood's narrator seems to desire nature's place to be far more prominent, yet the city planners do everything they can to obliterate nature from their plans. Nature is ignored, removed, and covered by all things mankind has created. 

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