The Poems analysed are:The City Planners, Margaret Atwood and The Planners, Boey Kim Cheng. These are taken from the IGCSE Cambridge Poetry Anthology, but may be interesting for unseen poetry too.
How do these poets use language and structure to get across their theme?
I wrote this in about half an hour. Both poems are very similar, and have the same topic - City Planning - as shown in their titles. Structurally, they are different though, and the tone differs in places. I've marked headings for each paragraph to show, roughly, what each one is about, with major areas in CAPS (see my post on STILTS as a way to compare poems)
This paragraph analyses: similarities in SUBJECT as shown in the title; similarities and differences in TONE, point of view or attitude of the poet / narrator; how Atwood's tone shifts quite noticeably and the effects of this on the reader.
Both poems use the word Planners in their titles and both deal with cities as their topic, focussing on the structures and organization of urban spaces. Kim Cheng uses the third person ‘they’ to create a sense of distance - of us and them, whereas Atwood uses the inclusive ‘we’, to suggest that this experience of cities is one that we can all relate to and share. Her attitude - and the narratorial tone of the poem - seems negative. She uses words like ‘offends us’, ‘discouraged’, ‘avoidance’, ‘sickness lingering’, including the semantic field of illness. These seem mostly quiet, and passive, but as the poem progresses, she shifts into a more violent tone, with ‘hysteria’, ‘bruise’, ‘vicious’, ‘capsized’, and ‘insane’.
How the TONE of the second poem is different to the first:
In contrast, the language of the Planners seems to have a far more positive tone: ‘possibilities’ ‘desired’ ‘gleaming’. However, this is the planners’ view, which is not shared by the poet. He describes the planners’ vision using a rule of three, as ‘anaesthesia, amnesia, hypnosis’, which suggests control, numbness. Like Atwood’s poem, the second half of Cheng’s poem shifts into violent imagery: ‘hurt’ ‘bleed’ and ‘stain’ - to show that this ‘gleaming’ vision, when imposed by force, hurts.
STRUCTURAL Analysis THEME - IMAGERY - LANGUAGE TECHNIQUES
Atwood uses an irregular structure, which gives the effect that ideas, and flow, are forcibly cut short, as where she breaks the sentence ‘what offends us is / the sanities’. Cleanliness here seems almost antiseptic, or negative and the idea of perfect regulation in ‘sanities’ repeats in ‘sanitary’, ‘levelness’, ‘straight’, ‘pedantic rows’ and ‘rational whine’. There is an uncomfortable edge to this perfection. While the first stanza is full of the semantic field of regulation, and control, the second is rising ‘hysteria’, where even inanimate objects take on a ‘vicious’ tone. Pathetic fallacy puts ‘sickness lingering‘ in the garages, the ‘plastic hose‘ is ‘poised‘ like a snake. This neat, mundane, urban landscape is twisted into something sinister, as houses are personified with a ‘too-fixed stare‘.
Feelings, THEME, STRUCTURE, LANGUAGE TECHNIQUES and effects on the reader
Moving into the third stanza, the poem shifts into a metaphorical imagining of a future where houses capsize like glaciers and sink into the earth. There is no full-stop to give pause from ‘wide windows // give momentary access to’, as if the second stanza is just sliding into the third. The final three stanzas deal with the Planners themselves. They are portrayed as anonymous, faceless forces - ‘with the insane faces of political conspirators’, giving the feeling of secrecy, danger, but also madness. ‘Concealed’ ‘private’ and ‘blizzard’ suggest isolation, secrecy, and maybe even meaninglesness: as in ‘vanishing’, ‘transitoryness’ and ‘guessing’. They don’t know what they’re doing or why. The antithesis of ‘panic’ and ‘order’ shows that in this control, there is terror lurking.
Overall comparison: regular vs irregular STRUCTURE, and TONE (attitude towards and portrayal of planners)
Get more on how to analyse poetry here, get model essays by poet here or click here for Cambridge IGCSE only
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Kim Boey Cheng is a Singaporean-Australian poet and now professor of creative writing at an Australian university. He’s relatively young when compared to some of the poets in our list and the meaning of this poem is located in his youth as a boy growing up in a quickly modernising Singaporean society.
If you know nothing about Singapore, have a quick glance at this picture below:
The Planners – in postIt is a very small country that has become very rich and dominated by huge high rise towers, typically linked with the finance industry. A former British colony, Singapore gained independence after World War II and a nasty period of Japanese occupation and a brief fling with being part of Malaysia. After some nifty tax policies designed to attract business to the country, the economy exploded in the 1960s and 70s and has continued to be very strong ever since. This wealth and growth of population coupled with the limited land available meant that much of the country was flattened so huge skyscapers could be built. Today these home 80-90% of the population! There is a good little article about this that was on the BBC recently, if you fancy finding out a little more.
‘The Planners’ reflects this dramatic change and how Singapore’s past was destroyed to make way for the new skyscrapers and the country in modernity. You can imagine how difficult this would be for local Singaporeans to take, particularly the older generation.
Another interesting fact – my father was born in Singapore in the 1950s (my grandad was a military man) and that means that I am eligible to represent them in any sport. Unfortunately I am rubbish at most sport and quite a few Brits have beaten me to the same idea. Boo!