The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

“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.

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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 that will even separate them from “life,” in other words, from the mundane concerns that prevent them from entering the other world. The meaning of this metaphoric filter becomes one of the cruxes of the poem.

Having apparently received and donned the requisite filtering mask, the friend next blames it for the fact that he finds it difficult to breathe. The poet reproves him by pointing out that everyone who uses the filter to attain the purer air of the other world has difficulty breathing, though most of the time they tolerate this condition without complaint. As a final reproof to his friend, the poet implicitly—and ironically—compares him to a certain “wise” man who blamed the darkness for the difficulty he had in seeing the stars. Whether or not the friend feels the sting of the poet’s irony and understands that darkness is the necessary precondition for seeing stars the reader never learns.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

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.

What, then, makes it a poem? Poetry, according to Ekelöf, arises not from the contents of the poem, but from the counterpoint of its words. In one of his most important essays, “En outsiders väg” (“An Outsider’s Way,” 1941), he explains this principle: “Seen in one light a group of words means something that was clear as day, seen in another the meaning of the same words is uncertain—as night. And poetry is this very tension-filled relationship between the words, between the lines, between the meanings.” An example of Ekelöf’s ability to create such tensions is evident in the way in which we glide by association from “helium” to “airship” (which is usually filled with helium). His skill at creating the kind of counterpoint he requires in a true poem is much more evident in the original Swedish text, however, in which the first syllable of “helium” may suggest hel (“whole”)—and consequently the kind of helhet (wholeness) that can only be found in the “other” world. Similarly, the banal Swedish phrase he attributes to the “wise” man, nätt och jämnt (“barely”), interacts with natt (“night”) and jämnmod (“equanimity”) in a way that highlights the significance of these two key words in the poem.

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Themes