I adore this poem and in doing so have forgiven Margaret Atwood for the pain she put me through during my A-levels with ‘The Handmaid’s Tale'(!). Here she is getting angry about the way the world is being solely deprived of its individuality in favour of taming nature through uniformity of design and construction.
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 spilt oil a faint
sickness lingering in the garages,
a splash of paint on brick as 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.
Margaret Atwood (1939-Present)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Margaret Atwood, another Canadian, is an all round literary figure – novelist, poet, journalist and critic. Her literature is probably worth a browse if you’re interested in feminist ideology as several of her novels tackle key issues about female empowerment or rather lack of it.
Anyway, this poem was first published in 1965 (when Atwood was 26), but seems to relate to her childhood. Her father was an entomologist (studying insects) and she spent much of her youth in very rural settings or wandering with him through the forests where he conducted his studies. This poem reflects a love of nature and the simple beauty of the rural world in reflection as it conveys a sense of aggression and hatred toward the trend toward urban formality.
The two big ones for me are the beauty and perfection of nature and on the other side the destructive force of urbanity and uniform ‘perfection’ of the man made.
The first thing you will notice about this poem is the irregular structure (I’ll get into that later) and I’d say that the stanzas don’t really function as stanzas in a conventional sense, but I’ll conjure a narrative referring to them in stanza order.
To understand this poem you have to be aware of what cities are like in Europe and North America – and quite possibly elsewhere, but certainly not Uganda. For all the wonder and opportunity in cities, there is a trend towards having housing estates or areas that are extremely uniform and following very exact rules of design (see feature image at the top of this post). It would not be uncommon to mistake one street or one house for another. Now if we compare this to Kampala (Uganda’s capital), you barely ever find this; almost every house is built to a unique design and the roads seems to twist and turn in all directions rather than following sensible grid-like patterns – I know Atwood would prefer it, but I’m not sure about myself. Anyway, this uniformity of suburban life is repellent to Atwood.
We begin with an image of someone driving around a city in the summer. Immediately Atwood is on the attack against what she sees as she talks about being ‘offend[ed]’ by various elements of the city. Notice that the things that annoy her are things that we would conventionally find appealing about an area – neat, clean and ordered without dirt, rubbish or loud noises.
The second stanza is the celebration that this boring attempt at perfection and uniformity is unsuccessful. The tiny imperfections are seen as a triumph of the natural over the man made, even if they are described using the city planners vocabulary of disgust and annoyance.
Notice how the third stanza is really just a continuation of the second as the sentence runs on. It begins to position this ‘perfect’ suburb as something temporary and destined to break and blister. She imagines this deterioration as a gradual, but inevitable, perhaps suggesting that people will eventually see sense.
She now describes her city planners. They come across as demented and evil souls determined to take away the beauty of nature through their schemes and secret plan to transform everything to uniformity. Yet, even within this there is an idea that they are ‘concealed’ from each other and thus are not aware of the full impact of their transformations, which are not just of one town, but a whole culture or country. The poem ends with a lingering thought about the damage they are doing – destroying the very air and leaving a madness and panic of uniformity behind.
Language and techniques
Loads of things to comment on – but where to start!?
I’d comment on Atwood’s description of the ‘perfect’ world of the planners. She is scathing about the ‘sanities’, which should strike you as a bit of an oxymoron. Being sanitary means being clean and tidy and yet here she says they ‘offend’. In addition, she uses the word ‘rational’ – another word usually associated with praise or used as a positive – to criticise the lawnmower which is destroying the creativity and life of the ‘discouraged grass’. Other adjectives include ‘neatly’ and ‘even’, which are used to the same effect. Her thoughts about what is happening are best summed up by her description of the houses as being ‘pedantic’; this means that it is boring accurate or precise. When someone is pedantic they are fussing over unimportant details and it seems like the city planners have covered every last element of suburban life in order to squash any imperfections of differences.
The imperfections mentioned by Atwood are presented sympathetically and as readers we can’t help siding with them. The dent in the car door is being ‘rebuke[d]’ or told off as if it were a naughty school child; shouting is banned; the grass is cut down and ‘discouraged’. All these images or ideas conjure an image of this uniform area as being some sort of totalitarian regime where no freedom whatsoever is allowed and punishment is swift and severe.
However, be at pains to explain that Atwood does not use positive vocabulary when describing these faults, but we can take her words to be sarcastic due to the tone of the poem. She refers to these imperfections as ‘hysteria’ – madness – which is really the view of her city planners. In addition, the spot of paint is a ‘bruise’ and spilt oil is a ‘lingering sickness’ – this is not what Atwood actually thinks, but again the ideas that are being instilled on society by the city planners and their conspiratorial scheming.
Next I’d deal with how the city planners are described. Did you notice the capitals? It is ‘City Planners’ rather than my lower case; again, I would take this as a sarcastic deification (referring to them as Gods) of these planners as they seems to position themselves as being above the imperfection of humanity and their lives. However, Atwood really goes to town on their description and making a mockery of their uniform towns that are ‘rational’, ‘neat’ and ‘sanitary’. They are described as ‘insane’ and operating in a private ‘blizzard’ which conjures an image of lunatics who are not able to recognise what is going on outside of their own mind – confused and disorientated from the rest of the world and even each other.
The idea of their careful and effective planning are ridiculed in Atwood’s use of the uncertain verb ‘guessing’, which indicates they don’t really have a clue or a plan. In addition, Atwood now addresses the topic without sarcasm, accusing them of creating ‘the panic of suburb order’ through their ‘bland madness’ of uniformity. If we are all the same, where do we find creativity and joy? Instead we find madness in being the same and not having the freedom to be different – that’s the reason I stopped being a Communist after one month when I was 16.
Some really interesting stuff to say here.
We’ve already mentioned the strange look of the first stanza and the fact the division of each stanza is imperfect at best. Atwood is using the disorganised structure to reflect her feelings about the uniformity – she is presenting beauty (in the form of this poem) in disorganisation or chaos and creating a contrast to the planners order and regularity.
Also, and this is really cool, she uses the length of the stanzas to demonstrate the impact of what the planners are doing. Our first stanza is 12 lines long and is extremely disorganised, with only one full stop right at the end. The second stanza is 10 lines, but without a single full stop, as if it is still out of control. The next is 6 lines, then 5 lines, then 3 and finally two. It is almost as if these stanzas are individuality and absence of uniformity fighting against the planners, but being slowly eroded and crushed. And you thought poetry was just pretty rhymes and written without much thought – WRONG! It really excites me when you figure out all the little ideas a poet incorporates into their work.
Another thing you could mention is the pace of the poem. There are three full stops in the whole poem (38 lines) and you are left almost breathless when reading it. This reflects the tone as this is not a peaceful and calm description of what is going on, but is Atwood being angry and trying to highlight the absurdity of the situation.
I’ve just described it above. Atwood is angry about what the planners are doing and positions them as working against us and the common good. The speed of the poem due to the continual enjambment and lack of definitive punctuation mean that it is read in a scathing manner, attacking the planners and their ideas about perfection.