“The City Planners” by Margaret Atwood

suburbs-zoom The more I write these introductions, the more you see the bedfellows to the poems, the clearer the shared themes are. The natural comparisons here are obviously “City Planners” by Boey Kim Cheng and “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In short, I opposed Cheng and Hopkins: Hopkins revels in the imperfections of life and sees them as beautiful; Cheng laments how we cannot tolerate the imperfections of life as Hopkins wishes we could – the flaws of our lives are eradicated by city planners who replace the natural/the historical/the past with gleaming, soulless constructions that mean nothing

Atwood (poem accessed here) sits at a midpoint between the two. Like Cheng, she despairs over the bland, soulless uniformity of architecture and urbanisation that the City Planners represent (stanza 1) – but unlike Cheng who is utterly without hope, Atwood doesn’t believe that this spells the end. In fact, Atwood’s attitude is more like Hopkins – in stanza 2, she revels in the human messiness that opposes the city planners’ uniformity and there is a real sense of purpose to her language, that our natural, human flaws and faults will come out eventually and that it is impossible to suppress these.

But if Hopkins is glorying and positive, the tone of Atwood is more sadistic, more vengeful. Stanzas 3 and 4 talk about how the city planners’ work will eventually be destroyed – in Cheng, the City Planners were all-powerful (“They have the means. / They have isuburbs1t all… / The piling will not stop”), but for Atwood, their work will ultimately come to nothing. The nature that Cheng saw as retreating and vanquished remains present for Atwood and will come eventually to reassert itself. I said earlier that Cheng’s poem is not “an aggressive attack” – Atwood’s, however, is. Stanzas 5-7 take a last aggressive swipe at the dolts in city planning and she uses language with power and vitriol in order to emphasise their stupidity, foolishness and idiocy in a savage attack on this idea of “progress”.

Explore how language is used in The City Planners in order to create effect on the reader.


3 thoughts on ““The City Planners” by Margaret Atwood

  1. Imogen

    As she drives through the suburb, she doesn’t see any people. This strange empitness is startling, as this is meant to be a place designated, for well, people. Is it that she does in fact see people, but they too are so dull and insignificant that she doesn’t feel compelled to even describe them? Or is this eerie emptiness a metaphor, representing the empty lives of the people who live there; void of meaning: Hearts empty of emotions, lives monotonous and repetitive – repetitive just like the identical houses she does describe. In describing the houses of the suburb as uniform and dull, she could be suggesting that the people of the suburb are exaactly the same.

    1. Imogen

      (not linked to the point above particularly)
      Atwood uses an semantic field of poor/winter weather, for example, ‘gradual as glaciers’, ‘his own private blizzard’, and ‘bland madness of snows’. These words all suggest the winter, ice, snow, the cold, thus indicating the cold-hearted nature of all that she is describing; the non-feeling, heartless indifference. Furthermore ‘blizzard’ denotes a snow storm, which has immediate implications of stormy weather, hurricanes, tornados, cyclones, tsunamis etc etc, which all carry central idea: of ruthless and apathetic destruction, suggesting how the actions of the city planners are that of demotlition and devastation; how damaging they are to people, humanity, society. Also, a tornado doesn’t care who’s home it ruins, nor does a hurricane care what town it ravages: this idea of cold hearted indiffernce indicates how the planners don’t feel empathy nor do they give a second thought to what they are destorying. They have the harshness of winter weather and the mercilessness of a natural disaster. Moreover, ‘snows’ suggest to us depressing, resrictive weather: snow prevents us from doing many things, implying how the rigid control of the planners prevent us doing what we want, removing our freedom. Also the drab and bleak weather indicates how the actions of the planners make us feel depressed and in despair.

  2. Matt

    Atwood uses negative lexis throughout this poem in order to communicate her disgust with the modern world. This is evident in the first stanza in the phrase, “the rational whine of a power mower.” The word “whine” connotes annoyance, which is amplified by its onomatopoeic quality. It also has implications of immaturity, suggesting that Atwood feels that the people responsible are either ignorant or narrow-minded. Furthermore, the fact that this noise is, “rational” implies normality conveying a kind of acceptance from people. The authorial intention behind this poem is to fundamentally criticise everything mathmatical and regimental, and to communicate to people the importance of nature and spontaneity.


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