what time is it? it is by every star
a different time, and each most falsely true;
or so subhuman superminds declare
— not all their times encompass me and you:
when we are never, but forever now
(hosts of eternity; not guests of seem)
believe me, dear, clocks have enough to do
without confusing timelessness and time.
Time cannot children, poets, lovers tell —
Measure imagine, mystery, a kiss
— not though mankind would rather know than feel:
mistrusting utterly that timelessness
whose absence would make your whole life and my
(and infinite our) merely to undie
Poem selected and commented on by Dannick Kenon
Time is probably the most essential invention or discovery of man. We are constantly thinking about it, asking for it and living by it. There is no question that time is relevant in our lives; rather, what is its importance? E. E Cummings’ “poem” provides an insightful take on the significance of time. “Poem” is a love sonnet that focuses on multiple aspects of the complex relationship between time and humanity, criticizing time as an inadequate, objective measurement of life and love.
The first stanza of “poem” asks: “what time is it?” Not only is this a fitting way to start the poem, but it also introduces the irrelevance of the question’s answer. “What time is it” hooks the reader with its familiarity and colloquialism. Everyone has heard the question, but the answer can never be objectively true. As Cummings points out, “it is by every star a different time.” Time is not synchronized across the planets or galaxies. Telling the time is subjective because it is only relevant to one’s location; time cannot be objectively true if it can be different depending on location. As Cummings writes, telling the time is “most falsely true” because time is different everywhere and nowhere tells the universal time, but it is mostly true because the subjective definition includes this variance. The first stanza of “poem” brilliantly shows time’s limitations in objectivity while the rest of the poem describes time’s inability to sufficiently measure human life.
Time may be extremely useful but can never really represent or measure a life. We record someone’s life spent alive in age. Age is nothing more than the accumulation of time expressed in years. However, years cannot “encompass me and you” because they do not account for the entire value of anyone’s life. Cummings indicates that years and age are not enough to fully account for a life’s worth. When he writes, “Time cannot children, poets, lovers tell — measure imagine, mystery, a kiss,” he suggests that time is only a quantitative dimension. Numbers do not represent the significance of a kiss, imagination or a mystery; rather, children, poets and lovers do. Because time is a poor representative of life, why do we waste our life prioritizing time over what really matters: love?
Cummings discusses time in a love sonnet to establish the often-forgotten importance of love. He reminds the audience of love’s intrinsic value. Referring to love, he writes, “whose absence would make your whole life and my (and infinite our) merely to undie.” Unlike time, one can “feel” love rather than just “know” it. Without love, living would just be not dying or to “undie.” “Undie” is not to be confused with just another word for living, as “undie” suggests so much more than just staying alive. “Un” is a prefix defined as the opposite of something, while die means to pass away. Therefore, “undie” means the opposite of death. Opposing death is to truly live and experience life to the fullest. Cummings stresses that love defines what it means to truly live, separating it from staying alive without love.
“Poem” criticizes time as an inaccurate, objective measurement and as an inadequate measurement of life. Cummings encourages his audience to remember that time is just a number. The value of time comes from us; time is not an objective truth and does not encompass life’s most important aspects. Love is not valued in time yet love, like all feelings, gives life meaning. “Poem” conveys the idea that time is not as important as love, so we should not rely on it as much as we currently do.
E.E Cummings was born Edward Estlin Cummings on October 14, 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He would go on to study at Harvard, serve in a World war I ambulance service and write renowned novels and books of poetry, including The Enormous Room and Tulips and Chimneys. He died of a stroke on September 3, 1962.
Readers can find “poem” in Strongly Spent, an anthology of poems from Shenandoah published in spring/summer 2003. It was originally published in Shenandoah in 1962.