Margaret Atwood’s ‘The City Planners’ is a multilayered poem in which the poet’s speaker shows contempt for the attempts of politicians and city planners to control the way humanity lives. The structure of the residential neighborhoods deeply offends her, for their insane order and for the way they’re doomed to fall apart and necessitate rebuilding. The speaker’s tone is disapproving and stern throughout as she critiques the suburbs and those who create them. But, the poet is not afraid to use beautiful and thought-provoking figurative language to describe the world.
Explore The City Planners
The poem begins with the speaker describing a drive through a residential neighborhood. It initially seems peaceful, but it quickly revealed that this is far from the case. Just the sight of the ordered houses, roofs, and driveways is enough to make the speaker feel insane. She catches brief glimpses of human nature pushing through the city planner’s design, but these are, at the moment, few and far between. They include a blob paint and a curled garden hose.
The second half of the poem is even more metaphorical than the first as Atwood depicts the city planner’s attempts to forge a new suburb in amongst the blizzards of what could be interpreted as climate change. They wander blindly, drawing transitory lines as if they’re wooden borders on white fading walls.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘The City Planners,’ Atwood engages with themes of society, control, and the future. She depicts a world in these short seven stanzas that is doomed to fall apart and be rebuilt. The city planners forge insane streets made of perfect roads and houses. All the roofs face the same way, and the grass is discouraged from growing. Everything and everyone has to fit into the same structured box. But, Atwood’s speaker is more in tune with this world than others seem to be. She knows that there are cracks in the foundation and that it’s all going to fall apart and sink into the earth some time in the future. These lines are very likely allusions to the climate crisis, something that necessitates a change in the way cities are planned.
Structure and Form
‘The City Planners’ by Margaret Atwood is a seven-stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. They range in length from twelve lines in the first stanza to two lines in the final stanza. The poem does not follow a specific rhyme scheme, but there are examples of half-rhymes and full-rhymes in the text. For instance, “door” and “or” at the ends of lines eight and nine of the first stanza are full rhymes. While “plaster” and “under” at the ends of lines two and three of the third stanza are half-rhymes.
Atwood makes use of several literary devices in ‘The City Planners.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, alliteration, and imagery. The latter is one of the most important literary devices that a poet can use in their work. It refers to the creative arrangement of descriptions a poet employs in order to help the reader envision what their scenes. These should require the reader to use multiple senses in order to fully understand them. For example, the second line of the poem “streets in dry August sunlight” and these lines from the second stanza: “the smell of spilled oil a faint / sickness lingering in the garages, / a splash of paint on brick surprising as a bruise.”
Alliteration is a kind of repetition that’s concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “wall” and “white” in the second line of stanza six and “gradual” and “glaciers” in the second line of stanza four.
Enjambment is an important formal technique that occurs when a poet cuts off a line before the natural stopping point of a sentence or phrase. For example, the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and lines one and two of the fourth stanza.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Cruising these residential Sunday
streets in dry August sunlight:
what offends us is
cutting a straight swath in the discouraged grass.
In the first stanza of ‘The City Planners,’ the speaker begins by describing something that initially seems pleasant. She is “Cruising these residential” streets on a Sunday in the “August sunlight.” This seems like a perfectly normal and even peaceful thing to do. Sunlight is usually a symbol of warmth and happiness, while placing the scene on a Sunday suggests a day of rest and thankfulness, as noted in the Christian tradition.
In the third and fourth lines of the stanza, Atwood creates an interesting juxtaposition when she adds, “what offends us is / the sanities.” The entire scene, the speaker and the “we” she represents says is pedantic and offensively sane. Everything is organized in terribly boring and practical lines. It’s clear right away that there is no room for creativity in this world.
The only indication of life, and life that could be interesting (but isn’t), are the trees. She describes them as “sanitary,” as if all the interesting, free, and natural growing shapes have been removed from them. It’s easy to imagine that they’ve been cut and pruned in specific ways, just like the houses and streets. They “assert / levelness of surface” that the speaker sees as a rebuke to the truth of the world, a dent “in our car door.” With this line, the “our” helps the reader understand that she is speaking for herself and whoever else she’s driving around with. She sees the dent in her door as a marker of reality, a reminder that nothing is truly perfect all that time.
In the last four lines of this stanza, the speaker notes how quiet and “rational” the world around her is on this August day. The suburbs are quiet. There’s no screaming or broken glass or anything else untoward. Those who live there have sought to separate themselves from anything remotely unpleasant. Atwood describes the grass as “discouraged.” This is an unusual way to speak about something natural, but make sense when one considers the sanitary trees and the levelness of the suburban world. The grass is discouraged from growing by the mower.
But though the driveways neatly
a plastic hose poised in a vicious
coil; even the too-fixed stare of the wide windows
The second stanza of ‘The City Planners’ is slightly shorter than the one before it, with only ten lines rather than twelve. It begins with the word “But,” signaling to the reader that although she’s described the world this way, it might not all fit that same description. Before revealing what she means, she adds that the “driveways neatly / sidestep hysteria / by being even,” and the roofs are all built with the same slant. The world is, on the surface, perfectly designed to keep the population sane and in control. But, this is exactly what is driving the speaker crazy.
It’s at this point, after the semicolon in line five of the stanza, that the other side of the situation comes through. Although everything seems perfectly constructed, there are a few details that signal to the speaker that humanity can’t be so easily contained and trained. There is the smell of “spilled oil,” and a splash of paint “on a brick” that she says is as “surprising as a bruise.” This simile brings to mind the stark nature of a blue or purple bruise on light-colored skin. This is exactly how the smudge of paint felt to her.
There is a good example of alliteration in the second to the last line with “plastic” and “poised.” These words are used to describe the coiled hose sitting outside a home. The image of the hose as a snake waiting to strike suggests that there is something deeper going on in this residential neighborhood. Perhaps, the people who live there are being driven as crazy by their world as the speaker is.
The last line of this stanza slightly personifies the “wide windows” on the houses. They seem to stare out at her as if they’re “too-fixed” on a single objective.
give momentary access to
the future cracks in the plaster
The third stanza of ‘The City Planners’ is only three lines long, as is the stanza that follows it. The previous stanza ended with an enjambed line, the first line of stanza three picks it up where it left off, describing for the reader how the windows give the speaker a brief insight into what’s going on beneath the surface. It allows her to see “behind or under / the future cracks in the plaster.” She knows that the perfect facade the city planners have created isn’t going to last.
when the houses, capsized, will slide
obliquely into the clay seas, gradual as glaciers
The fourth stanza also starts with the second half of an enjambed line. Here, the speaker adds that the plaster is going to crack when the houses capsize and sink into the “clay seas” of the earth surrounding them. By depicting the houses as future sinking ships or glaciers, the speaker is suggesting that they, and everyone in them, are doomed. This manner of life, so carefully planned and predicted, can’t last. Human nature is fundamentally at odds with it.
That is where the City Planners
with the insane faces of political conspirators
each in his own private blizzard;
The fifth stanza transitions into speaking about the “City Planners” named in the title. Atwood uses a metaphor to compare their faces to those of “political conspirators.” This doesn’t mean they are politicians, but that they look like they’re trying to put together some political, immoral plot. These people are scattered around the world, on “unsurveyed territories,” each seeking and each confined in their “own private blizzard.” This is the first mention of snow in the last lines. It appears again in the following two stanzas.
guessing directions, they sketch
on a wall in the white vanishing air
The surveyors don’t know where they’re going. They’re sketching “transitory lines rigid as wooden borders” on something that’s sure to disappear. This is a lovely simile that thoughtful depicts their efforts and how hopeless the task of trying to confine and contain creativity and human nature is.
order in a bland madness of snows
The surveyors are “tracing the panic of suburb / order in a bland madness of snows.” The poem concludes with these lines, allowing the reader to determine if anything could come next. It does suggest that this is where the cycle starts again, and a new suburb is created, just as mad and sanitary as those that fell apart, sinking into the earth. The “panic” and “order” of the planning are juxtaposed in this last line, finalizing for the reader their image of what the residential neighborhood is like.
In the final line, she uses the ungrammatical word “snows.” This could suggest that she’s trying to step outside the bounds of what is ordered and perfect and convey something of a steady decline of structure. It is also possible in these final lines to read the snow and vanishing air as indicators of the climate crisis and how impactful city planning can be on a green economy.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The City Planners’ should also consider reading some of Atwood’s other best-known poems. These include ‘Bored,’ ‘Sekhmet, the Lionheaded Goddess of War,’ and ‘Flying Inside Your Own Body.’ In the latter, Atwood uses lungs and breath to speak on concepts of freedom and the difference between the internal world and the external world. ‘Sekhmet, the Lionheaded Goddess of War,’ is one of several poems Atwood has written about mythological figures. In this piece, she talks about Sekhmet, an Egyptian goddess. She is described as a warrior queen who has no desire to sit around in a museum with Osiris. In ‘Bored,’ a short one stanza poem, Atwood speaks about the nature of life and how the speaker is no longer controlled by anyone other than herself.