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Analyze the poem "The Planners" by Boey Kim Cheng.

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An analysis of “The Planners” by Boey Kim Cheng should incorporate a summary of the poem, an interpretation of its content, an examination of its deeper symbolism and its metaphors, and a close look at its structure. “The Planners” is meant to combat the increasing standardization of both the physical environment and the individual.

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In “The Planners,” Boey Kim Cheng makes a creative, vivid, yet sobering statement about the nature of “progress.” The main characters in the poem are the planners, as the title tells us. They plan and build with meticulous regularity. Everything follows a grid pattern. Everything lines up just right. Everything is mathematical. But it is not natural, and nature draws back from this continual building, seeming to surrender to the planners' work.

The planners want everything perfect. Yet as they erase “blemishes” and “flaws,” they erase the past. Everything must be uniform, like “perfect rows / of shining teeth.” Like dentists (notice the poet's extended metaphor), these planners chip away at anything “abnormal.” They fill all gaps. They make sure that everything is just right. And they make others believe that this is desirable. They lull them into forgetting the unique messiness of the past. They convince them that this way is better, that “it will not hurt” to get rid of all the imperfections. And people go along, so the planners keep on drilling and piling and building “right through / the fossils of the last century.”

The poet is trying to get his readers to recognize that this kind of planning is not a good thing. It eliminates everything that is creative and beautiful and different in our world. What's more, these building planners are a symbol of something even more dangerous, a type of “planner” who wants to make all human beings exactly the same, to take away individuality and interest, artistry and specialness. These are the kind of planners who want people to be more like perfect robots, everyone in line, everyone thinking and acting the way they are told to think and act. Herein lies the deeper meaning of this poem.

Notice something else about this poem. The final stanza indicates the result of this planning, especially as it is applied to people. Our hearts will stop making poetry if we give in to such standardization, and life will be much poorer for it. The poet uses the metaphor of a bleeding heart here to show the intensity of the poetic spirit. Drops must fall on the planners' blueprints. Art and creativity and beauty must “mar” the strict blueprints of the planners.

Notice, too, how the poem's structure is not regular. It is written in free verse with no standard rhyme or rhythm, and its stanzas are all of different lengths. Even in the structure of the poem, the poet is building resistance to the standardization he is describing.

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In "The Planners," the speaker memorializes the past while describing the unstoppable force of progress and industrialization. There is a subtle indication that this poem is pastoral, longing for natural spaces not corrupted by cement. But more generally, the poem is about how the past is continually being erased. The poem deals mainly with geography and landscape, but it could be read in terms of the fast-paced race to the future: a computer or a smart phone is obsolete within a year - not only is the past erased and soon forgotten, it (the past) doesn't even last as long as it used to. 

The poem begins referring to "they" - planners - (the institutions and individuals who drive and sustain the force of industrialization and progress. "They" build the world in perfect grids, designed by mathematics. There is the sense that a human element is lost because the designs are so rigid and square. The line "Even the sea draws back / And the skies surrender" indicates that nature (and perhaps human nature) is being pushed out of the way. 

The poem has no particular rhyme scheme or meter. It is a series of lines/thoughts, some of which run on to following lines (enjambment) and some contain specific observations. So, "The buildings are in alignment with the roads / which meet at desired points" reads like a blueprint: this goes here, that goes there. But where a line runs on to the next, it doesn't have that blueprint style. It feels more like a wandering thought broken (the line break) by a nostalgic emotion: 

The drilling goes right through 

the fossils of last century. 

The speaker suggests that we have been brainwashed to let this occur. "Anesthesia, amnesia, hypnosis" - We are drugged, we forget the past, and then we are hypnotized to welcome the new world which has no blemishes or flaws. It is a world of "perfect rows." This is a world where everything is mathematically designed by "The Planners." It is sanitized and is as lifeless as a blueprint. In the final stanza, the speaker might be suggesting that in such a robotic, cement-driven, technological world, the human element is lost and therefore, the impact of human emotion and the power of art (the blood of poetry) would have no effect. 

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What is Boey Kim Cheng's "The Planners" about?

Boey Kim Cheng's 1992 poem reflects the rise of modern China. The nation's prosperity is shown as a function of orderly growth and rational planning. Cheng uses imagery to convey the careful precision of this growth:

The buildings are in alignment with the roads

which meet at desired points

linked by bridges all hang

in the grace of mathematics.

Urban and industrial growth is depicted as relentless — it "will not stop." In an ominous note at the end of the first stanza, this material progress is shown as a force that overpowers nature. The use of alliterative "s" sounds adds weight to the idea that nature is in retreat by drawing attention to the final couplet:

Even the sea draws back

and the skies surrender.

The second stanza continues to provide images of mechanical expansion and raises questions about the erasure of the past that such clinical progress brings. In a striking metaphor, for example, the speaker likens the growth to cosmetic dentistry. The builders:

knock off useless blocks

with dental dexterity.

All gaps are plugged

with gleaming gold.

The country wears perfect rows

of shining teeth.

Unease seeps into these images of a country actively engaged in destroying and erasing its history. The poem describes the replacement of tradition with "anesthesia, amnesia, hypnosis" in an unstoppable, inevitable process.

In the third and final stanza, the speaker wonders what all this mathematical precision and relentless growth does to the creative spirit. He suggests that this new society, by severing the past in favor of the future, has become sterile. The speaker states of this new world:

But my heart would not bleed

poetry. Not a single drop

to stain the blueprint

of our past’s tomorrow.

The image of the heart bleeding poetry implies that poetry and creative energy are born of past pain that is being erased and deadened. Comparing creativity and progress, the speaker raises the question of what is being lost in this relentless rush to engineer a new society.

In summary, the poem explores the theme of the price we pay for progress and laments the creativity lost when we forget the past.

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