The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“If You Ask Me” is a short dramatic monologue in free verse. The speaker seems to be identical with Gunnar Ekelöf himself. In the opening lines he anticipates—and answers—a question posed by his unidentified interlocutor about where he existsfinns, the Swedish verb Ekelöf uses, means something between “abide” and “reside.” As the monologue continues, the reader becomes closely identified with the silent friend to whom the poet is speaking. Using the familiar du form of address (which in 1955 still implied a certain degree of intimacy), the poet explains that he lives beyond the mountains in a world that is at once far away and nearby. He admits that he inhabits another world but insists that the friend—perhaps without knowing it—lives there too. Like the earth’s atmosphere, this other world is everywhere; but, like helium, it only exists in minute quantities in relation to some of the other permanent constituents of the atmosphere like nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen.

The poet’s friend has apparently believed this other world to be some sort of mystical, transcendent realm; therefore he has asked for an airship (a helium-filled dirigible) to take him there. The poet tells him that what he really needs for the journey is a filter—that is, some sort of gas mask that will eliminate noxious gases. He tells him to ask for a filter that will take out everything that separates people from each other, a filter...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Strountes, the curious title of the collection in which “If You Ask Me” appeared, points to one of the most striking stylistic aspects of this poem: its plain, unpoetic diction. The word Strountes appears to be a French transliteration of the Swedish word strunt, which means “rubbish” or “nonsense.” One of the epigraphs Ekelöf chose for this collection was a statement by the great Swedish Romantic poet and novelist, C. J. L. Almqvist, that it is unbelievably—almost insuperably—difficult to write strunt. Göran Printz-Påhlson has observed that in this volume of poems, Ekelöf is “attempting to make poetry by counterposing completely uncorrelated styles and in that way to find out his own ’style’” (Solen i spegeln, 1958). Leif Sjöberg’s rendering of Strountes as “Tryflings” captures something of the Joycean wit Ekelöf doubtless intended the title to convey to his Swedish readers (introduction to Selected Poems of Gunnar Ekelöf). The casual, freewheeling style of the Strountes poems allows Ekelöf to steer a course that moves between the cosmic and the comic. “If You Ask Me,” which was also translated by Robert Bly in his anthology Friends, You Drank Some Darkness: Three Swedish Poets (1975), lies closer to the comic pole. Like most of the forty-eight poems in this collection, it has no title, no punctuation, and no identifiable form.


(The entire section is 438 words.)