“I have become comfortably numb.”
When I commute into the city centre, I often take a book of poems. I read them eagerly on the way in to work. But after a long day wrestling with technical, logistical, and managerial issues, on the return journey I will invariably whip out my phone and tap away mindlessly at video games.
Certainly, energy is one factor in this pattern. Poetry demands attention (and good poetry rewards it in equal or greater measure); video games demand little but give back instantly in pleasurable (but short-lived) bursts. So, perhaps when I have less to give, I settle for the lightweight option. But this doesn’t explain the pattern entirely, because I often read and enjoy poems in the comfort of my own home when I am equally or even more tired–and I rarely play video games except to “kill time.”
The other factor is how incredibly uncomfortable I find being crammed into a tube carriage with strangers. Many people seem to take it in stride; for me every second counts. More than once, while playing video games, I have missed my interchange or only just looked up in time to get off at my stop. The stimulation and quick reward cycles of video games speed time up, which is exactly what I want at the end of a long day–to fast-forward through the unpleasant commute home.
Reading poetry, time behaves differently. I am aware of how the duration of the poem relates to the duration between stops. I progress from poem to poem and stop to stop. I notice the faces around me, the dark tunnel streaming past the windows, the flickering overhead light. My senses, rather than dulled, are heightened not only to the words on the page, but the world around me.
What I have observed under the intensified conditions of a difficult commute seem to play out to some degree in the difficulties of ordinary life. This world may not have become more tragic, but tragedy now confronts us with every mouse click. Increasingly complex social, technological, and environmental issues practically assault us, vying for our attention. No wonder biased-to-the-brink-of-propaganda news options, like the headlines my fellow commuters gulp down–telling not only what to think but how to feel–have become so popular.
Overwhelmed by emotional and intellectual complexity, numbness can be tempting. But the poems that take a lens to such issues, magnifying them to the point of–if not comprehension–an increased capacity to abide human paradox, can provide a way through, rather than just a way out. A clever game or a funny clip stays with me for seconds; the impact of a good poem can overshadow the better part of a lifetime. That is why, amid the cacophony, I still turn back to poetry to give me something no angry birdsong can.