The City Planners – Margaret Atwood

Summary

Margaret Atwood finds the identical houses of suburbia offending to the eye. There is nothing to set one house apart from another. The houses look like clones of each other, even the trees are uniform and the roads are so level, they seem to be rebuking the dent on their car. The houses seem soulless and boring. They have been designed by unimaginative city planners who have no spark of creativity. Silence pervades suburbia; the only intruding sound is of the lawn mower that keeps the grass cut in identical fashion in all the houses. The only things that set the houses apart are:

“ 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;”

The town planners are so taken by the present moment of designing soulless houses they don’t seem to care whether the houses will dissolve into a clayey sludge one day and float away.

Main Subject

The main theme is the poet’s dislike for the suburban houses that look like they have been cast in the same mould. There is no imagination or creativity seen and this uniformity offends her eye. The monotony and the silence set her on edge. There is no sound of laughter heard or any sign of life seen. The silence is only broken by the whirr of the lawn mower which works to make the grass uniformly cut.

“No shouting here, or
shatter of glass; nothing more abrupt
than the rational whine of a power mower
cutting a straight swath in the discouraged grass.”

The city planners are working so hard at making these cloned houses that they are not concerned about what could happen in the future to these houses.

Purpose

Margaret Atwood was an environmentalist who wrote this poem to protest against the city planners who have designed suburban houses with no imagination. They celebrate monotony and uniformity. There are rows and rows all looking alike. There is humour, irony and annoyance in the poem.

Emotions

The emotion that registers first is the annoyance the poet feels as she drives or walks along a suburb in a city where all the houses resemble each other. It is monotonous and soulless. The houses don’t seem lived in; there is no noise emanating save that of the lawn mower that cuts the grass in identical swathes. The poet feels that the city planners do not care what happens to the houses they design.

Technique / Craftsmanship

The poem moves headlong into what offends the poet and her companion as they walk or drive along the suburbs that have been designed by the city planners. Stanzas are of uneven length written apparently as thoughts come into her mind. Free verse is the vehicle used by the poet.

Structure

Starting with long stanzas, the poet moves on to brief three line and two line stanzas which foretell the fate that could befall the housing estates in case of a natural calamity. The planners are working to create more suburbs across the “bland madness of snows” of Canada. 

Language

Easy every language written without any literary artifice marks the initial stanzas. When the poet prophecies the likely outcome of a revenge by nature, she uses metaphors.

Imagery

The houses are so orderly and spotless that an ordinary splash of paint is considered a bruise and a commonplace coiled hose pipe as deadly as a snake posed to strike.

a splash of paint on brick surprising as a bruise,
a plastic hose poised in a vicious
coil;

In a series of metaphors, the poet sketches the consequences of such frenzied development. The houses may capsize and float away on a sea of mud due to man’s thoughtlessness. There are already signs but no one notices them.

Movement / Rhythm / Sound

Moving from the long slow early stanzas, the poem picks up speed as thoughts come rushing in. Metaphors follow each other in succession.

Figures of Speech

The poet uses metaphors to describe the sameness of the suburb and the monotony of life there. What sets the houses apart are only insignificant things like a splash of paint, a coiled hosepipe or an oil stain – nothing material. The slanting roofs, the windows and even the gardens have no special character. There is no life or movement seen; it is like a dead city.

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