I often find that writing a quick essay – not an exemplar A grade essay, but a stimulus paper which can be used in discussion or as a starting point for criticism is the best way to access a new poem. Here goes, 45 minutes maximum allowed!:
Atwood’s poem reads as a harsh attack on the forces of urbanisation and the effects of their planning. Writing in the persona of a visitor from “out of town”, Atwood describes the emotions which overwhelm her and a companion, as she enters an area of suburban development.
In the first stanza, the setting is laid bare for the reader to see. The gentle “cruising” on a Sunday in August is brought to a halt in line 4. The lines shorten, almost seeming to mimic the car rolling to a halt on the word “sanities”. These elements of imposed order, so at odds with the presumed insanity of nature are then listed, almost as though being viewed from her battered car. Picking up the quasi homophonic link between “sanities” and “sanitary”, the reader notes that even the trees in the street seem unnaturally cleansed, and they, like the “pedantic” rows of houses are personified as “rebuking” her dented car for its inimmaculate appearance. The use of “pedantic” is strong here – even the houses seem to be obsessed with the minute management of the environment. The environment is further described in the next line by the fact that all is unnaturally quiet – “no shouting here” may well be an imperative as well as a comment on the deserted streets. Atwood notices plenty about the location, but it is a location devoid of any other human presence. In this world, the lawns are cut in straight lines and so repressed is nature that even the grass seems to be “discouraged”.
At this point in the poem, the narrator notices elements in the perfect environment that unsettle: “certain things” stand out among the organised driveways and slanting roofs – all angled with exactly the same pitch to the sky, now described as “hot” – as though tension is mounting. The idea that this order is all that holds hysteria at bay for the inhabitants is set against a mounting concern in the car as small imperfections are noted – the oil spill, the paint splash and the coiled hose. The description of these elements is interesting as each is personified and described as adding unpleasantness or tarnish to the scene. The oil smells of “sickness”, the paint is “as surprising as a bruise” suggesting that actual harm has been inflicted on the brickwork and the hose becomes a snake – potentially “vicious” and therefore threatening to the incomers.
As she looks at the scene the narrator becomes aware of a deeper truth. The “wide windows” –the alliteration helping to give a feeling of expansiveness, are described as having a “too-wide stare” as though hysteria is setting in, but it is through these windows that the narrator is given her view of the future. Here the poem shifts from a discussion of the effect of planning in the present to a realisation of the futility of the whole edifice. The houses are described as ships in a metaphor which imagines the whole town “capsizing” slowly into the “clay seas”, presumably the bedrock on which they stand. The process is slow, glacially slow, but just as with the movement of the glaciers, it is unstoppable and inevitable. However, no one but the narrator has recognised this folly – least of all, we assume, the City Planners.
Capitalised and given the identity of their profession, these are Atwood’s next target. It is possible to read much that has come before as being metaphorically representative of the Planners – they are “pedantic” and “rational”, they cut “straight swath(s)” and they will work to “assert levelness of surface” on which to build, but here they are directly attacked. Atwood finds their faces to be “insane” and targets them with the tag of “political conspirators”, presumably taking orders and working to undermine their opponents. They work “concealed from each other” suggesting secrecy and a lack of coherent thinking and are finally described as working “each in his own private blizzard”.
The blizzard moves the poem into a slightly surreal environment. It may represent the dust and debris of the building work or it might simply represent a blindness and destructive force like unto a force of nature. Whichever view is taken, the description clearly moves on to show a dysfunctional and incompetent group of men “guessing lines” and creating oxymoronic lines which manage to be “transitory” and “rigid” and which are created in air which is vanishing even as the lines are created. Ultimately, the Planners are creating suburbs not as places of calm and retreat, but as a panicked response to the forces of nature. They work in a “bland madness of snows” suggesting both the monochrome uniformity of appearance and the white emptiness which will eradicate any sense of what was there before the Planners arrived.
This is a harsh attack, not just on urbanisation but also on those responsible. The language is rich in metaphor and the free verse form helps to create a sense of anger as the stanzas shorten and enjambment runs the syntax between stanzas with no visible means of support. It is hard to resist the idea of the narrator pushing the accelerator hard to the floor as the poem ends and hurrying out of this bland suburban hell.
The City Planners
Cruising these residential Sunday
streets in dry August sunlight:
what offends us is
the houses in pedantic rows, the planted
sanitary trees, assert
levelness of surface like a rebuke
to the dent in our car door.
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.
But though the driveways neatly
by being even, the roofs all display
the same slant of avoidance to the hot sky,
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; even the too-fixed stare of the wide windows
give momentary access to
the landscape behind or under
the future cracks in the plaster
when the houses, capsized, will slide
obliquely into the clay seas, gradual as glaciers
that right now nobody notices.
That is where the City Planners
with the insane faces of political conspirators
are scattered over unsurveyed
territories, concealed from each other,
each in his own private blizzard;
guessing directions, they sketch
transitory lines rigid as wooden borders
on a wall in the white vanishing air
tracing the panic of suburb
order in a bland madness of snows