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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The City Planners and The Planners

One common concern of modern poetry is the disillusionment of the artist and the intellectual for the supposedly soulless path of technological progress and industrialization. Two poems that subscribe to this school of thought are Margaret Atwood’s “The City Planners” and Boey Kim Cheng’s “The Planners”. The poems are indeed remarkably similar in ideas and tone, although the former is considerably more skilled, and the latter introduces themes more specific to the poet’s homeland. They are nevertheless thus highly suited for comparison.

Atwood’s poem is rich with irony and linguistic inventiveness. It is written in her trademark free verse style, with little structure or formality. In attacking the “bland madness” of the suburbs, Atwood begins by using humour; there is no denying the unusual effectiveness of the lines “what offends us is/the sanities”. The “us” here is however a rather weak word for “me”, since it is only her own view that the poet is discussing, and by grouping either the reader or a companion alongside herself she risks being dishonest. Nevertheless, to begin a poem in this way is indeed noteworthy and unusual, as is the idea of being offended by normal life. From the start she thus sets herself apart from the all-too-normal suburbanites, who are appalled by any departure from sanity.

Atwood then proceeds to describe and thus debunk these “sanities”, and it is here that she is most effective; in her contemptuous, gleefully ironic phrasing, we get an excellent sense of how puerile she finds the order and sameness of modern life, and at this point I even agreed. “The houses in pedantic rows, the planted/sanitary trees”...this truly seems like not the comfortable, safe existence that is from another perspective but like a boring, colourless situation. At the end of this second stanza, Atwood writes of a lawn mower, mockingly describing it as the most surprising or interesting thing that the suburb offers. It is the poem’s most powerful image and also the point where in my view the poem begins to fall apart. At this point Atwood proceeds to reveal the slight flaws in the rigid perfection, the signs that she sees as indicative of the future apocalypse, in which the suburban houses will be revealed as nothing more than insignificant, the epitome of nothingness. Atwood’s hyperbolic concluding stanzas describe the strangely self-important City Planners, who do not realize that far from being vital to the future of the world they are as empty and meaningless as their creations.

Atwood is quite right to point that suburbia amounts on level to nothingness. Her poem shines with wit and brilliant phrasing: the ability to coin a phrase such as “bland madness” is not one to be lightly disregarded. Yet on a second, third and fourth reading “The City Planners” is revealed to be a whiney rant, an exaggerated condemnation of something rather harmless. Atwood on the one hand claims that suburbia is a petty nothingness and yet is seemingly outraged by it. While the poem has many moments of linguistic brilliance, Atwood shows no restraint, assaulting the reader with rich and complex phrase after rich and complex phrase. And in the final analysis it is rather difficult to choose between subject, the small and unimportant but rational and pleasant suburb existence and the author, strangely offended, erratically brilliant and unremittingly hysterical. The residents of such a suburb would be rather bemused by this talk of “the panic of suburb order”; indeed they would think the poet rather unhinged. But this is indicative not only of the reactionary ideology of the suburbanite but also of the fact that Atwood has little to truly complain about. “The City Planners” is thus eventually a well-expressed nothing about nothing.

“The Planners” by Boey Kim Cheng at first offers more possibilities for interesting analysis. Unlike Atwood’s doggedly insular work, the poem deals not with Cheng’s personal hatred for his immediate surroundings but with his reflections on his home nation’s apparently soulless route of progress. It is unfortunate therefore that he lacks her poetic talent. It is, nevertheless, in many ways an interesting poem to study, and in this case successive readings greatly enhanced my appreciation of the work.

Cheng’s first stanza is largely descriptive- he sets the scene for his analysis of the omnipotent Planners and evokes the scene of modern Singapore, planned and executed with an exactitude that has no exception and is in direct opposition to the vagaries of nature. “Even the seas draw back/ and the skies surrender” writes Cheng, and this is not irony but mere exaggeration, for this is truly the kind of effect the Planners intend and achieve. It serves as a potent introduction for the poem, not yet introducing the poem’s meaning but yet providing the backdrop perfectly. One can only quibble with Cheng’s ridiculous phrase, “in the grace of mathematics”; if he believes that the exactness of the Planners’ creation is in keeping with the grace of mathematics, he obviously has very little understanding of the greatest of the sciences. Even if the line is ironic it still reveals a lack of understanding on the part of the poet.

The second stanza is also in many ways descriptive, but here for the first time the poem is also meaningful. While Cheng’s language tends to the cringe-worthy (witness such schoolboy uses of linguistic features as “All gaps are plugged/with gleaming gold” and “The country wears perfect rows/of shining teeth”), with constructions such as “Anaesthesia, amnesia, hypnosis” resembling either a list of Spelling Bee words or a clumsy song lyric, but certainly not good poetry. He is also a user of mixed metaphors, in the last two lines of the stanza, “The drilling goes right through/ the fossils of last century”, at best one of the worst of linguistic crimes. Yet here it is the meaning of the poem and not the language that best deserves inspection.

Like Atwood, Cheng has a certain disaffection for the scientific force of progress, although his distaste deals specifically with the case of Singapore. In this sense both poems can be considered anti-modernist and perhaps even post-modernist. “The Planners” examines Singapore’s attempt to shed its colonial past and emerge as a post-colonial nation not by embracing its pre-colonial heritage as Tanzania or the Democratic Republic of Congo did but by setting itself aside as a defiantly modern, scientific, unsentimental nation. Cheng’s description of this is fairly dramatic- he writes of “history” being “new again”, and being blasted away by the aforementioned drills. He has an important point, but ignores an equally notable one: that as a new nation that was a fishing village as recently as 1819 and is an amalgam of several different races and cultures, put together for the first time, it was completely understandable for Singapore to set its own course, although Cheng is free to disagree with that course. It is a similar to situation to Americans not seeing themselves in relation to their European past but in terms of their new land and that ultimate cliché, the American Dream. Cheng is far from subtle in revealing his discomfort with Singapore’s capitalist utopia, and one is certainly left with the image of a scary, inhuman state. Cheng is woefully let down however by his final stanza, which contains the appalling construction, “But my heart would not bleed/poetry.” It is here that Cheng makes his main point, that art and the concept of Singapore are mutually exclusive: it is worth nothing that at the time of writing he had left Singapore for the presumably more human society of Australia.

The common theme of the two poems is the discomfort of the artist with mundane, everyday life and with science-driven, apparently heartless modernist progress. In many respects I find myself in sympathy with the poets, and Cheng in particular. Yet examining the poems objectively, I must conclude that both are severely flawed: they are one-sided to the point of being myopic, display an extremity of tone that is not justified by their arguments, and in Cheng’s case, also characterized by a command of English that would be disappointing in a student. And my final and perhaps most important criticism that is that both poems are argumentative rather than evocative: hysterical rather than moving; and didactic rather than provocative. In my judgement these are literary qualities towards which the medium of poetry has never suggested itself. It is their presence that above all cripples the effect of both “The City Planners” and “The Planners”.

3 Comments:

Blogger Amna Chaudhry said...

This was helpful =)

11:54 PM  
Blogger alexrazor said...

thanks :)

3:37 PM  
Blogger alexrazor said...

thanks for this :)

3:38 PM  

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