Vogon poetry, Adams explains, is the “third worst in the Universe,” behind “that of the Azgoths of Kria”—whose poet laureate accidentally killed himself by reciting too much of his own wretched verse—and a woman named Paula Nancy Millstone Jennings from Greenbridge, Essex, England. Now, as Arthur and Ford are strapped into torturous “Poetry Appreciation chairs,” Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz smiles and begins reciting one of his original pieces. “Oh freddled gruntbuggly…,” he intones as Ford writhes involuntarily in his seat. “Thy micturations are to me- As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.” When he finishes, Prostetnic tells Arthur and Ford that they must choose between dying in space or telling him how much they liked his poetry. As Ford gasps for breath, Arthur heroically tells Prostetnic that he “quite liked” his verse. Rushing on, he says, “I thought that some of the metaphysical imagery was really particularly effective.”
What’s perhaps funniest and most surprising about this scene is that Ford, who is normally so quick on his feet when it comes to using language to dupe somebody, doesn’t even think to tell Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz that his poetry is good. Instead, he struggles in agony in his chair, unable to withstand the horrible sounds of this alien’s terrible verse. Arthur, on the other hand, jumps at the opportunity to save himself. To do so, he blatantly lies, launching into a convoluted compliment about the “metaphysical imagery” embedded in Prostetnic’s poem. In this way, he uses his linguistic and analytic skills to protect himself.
Arthur continues to praise Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz’s poetry, even as Ford gapes at him in disbelief. Soon, though, he begins to grasp at words, unable to sustain this false flattery. Luckily, Ford eventually helps him, jumping in to finish Arthur’s statement that Prostetnic’s verse has “interesting rhythmic devices” that “counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor.” When Ford can’t think up what this underlying metaphor actually is, Arthur posits that the metaphor is one about the “humanity”—or “Vogonity”—of “the poet’s compassionate soul.” Having established this, Arthur forges on to say that this “compassion” “contrives through the medium of the verse structure to sublimate this, transcend that, and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other and one is left with a profound and vivid insight into…into…er…” At this point, Ford swoops in, declaring, “Into whatever it was the poem was about!”
Using Arthur and Ford’s collaborative assessment of Prostetnic’s poem, Adams satirizes the practice of literary analysis, insinuating that such endeavors often sound quite intellectual without actually saying anything at all. Indeed, it’s worth noting that Arthur and Ford are hardly saying anything of importance about Prostetnic’s verse. At one point, Arthur says that the “verse structure” works to “sublimate this, transcend that, and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other,” but he never identifies what he means by the words “this,” “that,” and “other,” thus rendering his comment entirely useless. And as if it’s not already clear that Arthur and Ford aren’t actually saying anything of substance, Ford unabashedly proclaims that Prostetnic’s poem provides insight “into whatever it [is] the poem [is] about.” In turn, the analysis becomes meaningless, a mere gesture toward examination that lacks any real intellectual significance.
Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz considers for a moment the things Arthur and Ford have said about his poetry. “So what you’re saying is that I write poetry because underneath my mean callous heartless exterior I really just want to be loved, is that right?” he asks. When Ford confirms this, Prostetnic stands and says, “No, well, you’re completely wrong. I just write poetry to throw my mean callous heartless exterior into sharp relief. I’m going to throw you off the ship anyway. Guard! Take the prisoners to number three airlock and throw them out!” Ford and Arthur begin to struggle, but they find themselves helpless against the strength of a large Vogon guard. As they’re roughly escorted out of the room, Prostetnic sits back and says, “Hmmm, counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor…” After closing his eyes for a moment, he mutters, “Death’s too good for them.”
For a moment, it seems as if Prostetnic is moved by what Arthur and Ford have said about his poetry. Interestingly, he manages to find meaning in what they have said, deciding to interpret their incoherent babbling as a statement regarding his “callous heartless exterior” and his need to be “loved.” Although he dismisses this when he chooses to have them thrown off the ship, the mere fact that he derived this interpretation from their rambling analysis suggests that he wants to think this about himself. However, Adams is not a sentimental author, but the kind of writer who chooses humor over emotion. As such, he further dismisses the idea that Prostetnic wants to believe in the value of his own poetry. He does this by having Prostetnic muse that “death” is “too good” for Arthur and Ford, ultimately establishing once and for all that Prostetnic’s poetry is meaningless and that reading into it is not only useless, but absurd and ill-advised.
As the Vogon guard takes Ford and Arthur to the airlock, Ford tries to trick him into letting them go. Before long, he has the guard questioning his purpose in life, but then the large Vogon dismisses this line of thinking and throws them into the airlock, where they have little to do but bide their time before their inevitable deaths. Thinking to himself, Arthur reflects upon the fact that almost nothing from Earth exists anymore. “This is terrific,” he thinks, “Nelson’s Column has gone, McDonald’s has gone, all that’s left is me and the words Mostly harmless. Any second now all that will be left is Mostly harmless. And yesterday the planet seemed to be going so well.” As he thinks about this, the airlock begins to hiss, and then Ford and Arthur pop “into outer space like corks from a toy gun.”
Yet again, Ford tries to use language and persuasion to influence his circumstances, this time attempting to convince the Vogon guard that there’s more to life than pushing people around inside a spaceship. Unfortunately, though, the Vogons are a stubborn species who aren’t particularly interested in deep existential questions. Rather, they focus on executing whatever it is they’ve set out to accomplish, and this is why Ford’s linguistic tricks don’t ultimately work on the guard. Arthur, for his part, simply gives up and laments his impending death, recognizing in this moment that he is completely powerless against the Vogons’ strong will.