Children’s Independence Day: July 4, 1862, Part 2.

And, as the man began to speak, a strange thing happened.  Shock waves were felt in libraries across the world.  Strong winds blew books off the shelves.  And the moralizing, degrading, pompous tomes were cast into a literary black hole.  The Mary Martha Sherwoods, Sandford and Mertons, Anna Laetitia Barbaulds, faded into oblivion.  New books of beauty took their places.  The garden of childhood was opened to reveal an abundance of green carefree space, filled with toys, games and a treasure trove of waiting memories.  The man took the oars, and continued his tale, inspired by the gazing eyes of three young girls.  He was truly in his element.  And through a series of gestures, the twinkle in his eye, the wry smile that crossed his lips, he drew his listeners ever closer into his tale.  As he spun his story, the adult world, which had tyrannized children for centuries, was mocked, and turned on its head.  The hypocrisy, the insipid moralizing of adults, was transformed into utter nonsense, much to his young audience’s delight, who clapped their small hands and laughed for joy.  He even included the girls in his story and gave them parts like a dramatist.  He also borrowed from the outings they had shared:  tea parties, new rules for croquet, a pack of cards, magic tricks, picnics on the lawn.  The sound of the river strokes blended with the speaker’s soft voice…  The rain that delayed their journey the previous day had disappeared completely, although it reappeared in the continuing tale.  The narrator was also included in the story, but yielded to the presence of one Victorian girl.  It was she with dark cropped hair that had captivated Charles the most.  The far reaching eyes, the pensive mind, the girlish laughter.  He courted her in the only way he knew; through whimsy, playfulness and ineffable charm.  Like a conjurer, he opened the garden of childhood to Alice.  She was just the right age to enjoy the assault on the adult world and her own place in it.   Charles was brimming with ideas that spilled into the wonderland of his story.  The ideas came from mathematics, philosophy, politics, discussions he had with colleagues at Christ Church.  He had told stories before, but entranced by his eager audience, and enamored of Alice, he wove such a compelling tale that it ignited a revolution in literature and changed the concept of childhood forever.  Its iridescent glow peaked through the catacombs, and lit up the literary canvases of George MacDonald, Kenneth Grahame, L. Frank Baum and countless others extending the realm of the child still further…  Charles was unsuccessful in his courtship of Alice, and was ultimately banished from her home.  But, he gave her a special gift; that of literary immortality…

Charles with his two Alices

Charles with his two Alices

Children’s Independence Day: July 4, 1862, Part 1.

Children have long been neglected throughout the world and the concept of childhood is relatively recent.  In the Middle Ages, children were often depicted as dwarfish, misshapen adults.  Children were considered incomplete, in need of constant correction.  So it should come as no surprise, that one of the first English pieces written for children in the Middle Ages was how to sit at the table.  Other instructional verse followed.  During the Puritan era, many parents thought that the best thing their children could do would be to die and thus be spared a world of unending temptations and troubles.  And many obedient children did just that.  Imagination in the minds of children could only lead them astray.  They had to be reminded of the torments they would suffer if they didn’t behave properly.  The Bible, and Foxe’s Book of Martyrs were obligatory reading and the alphabet was stuffed down children’s throats.  Chapbooks from hawkers provided an escape into the worlds of Robin Hood, The Arabian Nights and other landing places for the imagination.  But such reading was not dignified by parents; it was an underground literature.  Novels for children drew clear distinctions between right and wrong, good and bad children.  They were written to inculcate moral values in children and to glorify and affirm parental authority.  One contemporary scholar called such writers “The Monstrous Regiment.”  The following excerpt from Mary Martha Sherwood’s The History of the Fairchild Family is sufficient:

Lucy:  …  I do not wish to take Miss Augusta’s things from her, or to hurt her.  Emily and I only wish to be like her and to have the same things she has.

Mrs. Fairchild:  What you now feel, my dears, is not exactly envy, though it is very like it.  it is what is called Ambition.  Ambition is the desire to be greater than we are.  Ambition makes people unhappy and discontented with what they are and what they have.  Ambition is in the heart of every man by nature;  but, before we can go to heaven, it must be taken out of our hearts, because it is a temper that God hates–though it is spoken of, by people who do not fear God, as a very good thing.

The novel ends with a “child’s” prayer: ” …  I know that my heart is full of sin and that my body is corrupt and filthy, and that I must soon die and go down into the dust;  and yet I am so foolish and so wicked as to wish to be great in this world…”

And then, on July 4, 1862, a man of thirty with dark wavy hair, sensitive eyes and a soft complexion started speaking and everything changed.

The Special World Of Piet Hein, Part 2.

CROSS-WORLD from Grooks VII:

The world is a cross-word

immersed and immense

with letters that fit

in each spot.

And the tiniest, teeniest

details make sense

but the entire pattern

does not.

Just like Hein’s other poems, the Grooks are written in a classical metrical, rhymed form, and they have fortunately withstood the tinge of rhetorical pathos that occasionally hovers over certain popular poetry and hymns.  The Grooks are at the same time crafted with precision and free flowing.  Their paradoxical and fertile wisdom is often expressed in the very last word, like a pointed revelation.  It is neither satire nor sarcasm, but humor alone that lifts and carries these thousands of fairy-like declarations of independence.  Quite often their humor and catharsis are brought together through a play on words or an allusion, but it is always through perspective.  The Kumbel figure, which has found form in both the poetry and in Hein’s own drawings(with an affinity to Axel Nygaard’s vignettes), and which have had a vital importance for the poetry’s longevity, is a spiritual vagabond, a free spirit, a kind of cousin to Chaplin(with whom Hein became friends.)  With a flight of fancy, and without any sticky moral arrogance, Hein moves from the infinitely small to the infinitely large, from the restrictive to the cheerfully expansive.  He is a reformer who paves the way for a bloodless revolution and is full of confidence in the future.  His aphoristic mini poems systematically oppose political systems and have enough ideas to puncture ideologies.  The monumental number of quotations from Hein’s Grooks that have found their way into newspapers, books, lectures, and even on ashtrays and other similar industrial objects bear witness to a popular propagation that is presumably greater than that of any other contemporary Danish poet.  Hein has translated personally many of the Grooks into English, German, French, and Esperanto.  Their status as classics has been assured, but perhaps their apparent weightlessness has resulted in their not always being considered to be among the heavyweights of domestic literary genres.

We are leaving Wisdom to starve and thirst

if we cultivate knowledge as such.

The very best comes to the very worst

when Ignorants know too much.

Finally, one of my favorites from Grooks VI:IMG_5397

The Special World Of Piet Hein, Part 1.

Martin Gardner, Scientific American–Piet Hein has one of those rare and psychologically mysterious minds, possessed by so many great creative scientists such as Einstein and Niels Bohr, a mind that goes straight to the heart of a problem, seeing all its aspects as a single unity, then finding a solution that is as unexpected as it is beautiful.

TAUGHT from Grooks VII:

We are taught to live,

we are taught to feel.

We are taught to conform and conceal.

We are taught so well

what we

ought to feel

that we cannot feel what we feel.

The Dane Piet Hein was the inventor of the super ellipse. a respected mathematician, an activist in the Danish underground and the creator of grooks.  Grooks are aphoristic verses accompanied by a light-hearted and often humorous drawing.  Grooks often have several levels of meaning with philosophical overtones.  They have been declared in public places, set to music, and quoted extensively in Danish papers.  Piet Hein was enormously popular in the U.S. in the 1970s, but has since faded from view.  His Grooks, which were once commonplaces on University bookshelves, are more difficult to obtain.  Piet Hein himself translated his seven volumes of Grooks into English with the assistance of Jens Arup.  However, out of about 10,000 grooks, somewhat less than 400 have been translated into English. What a colossal loss for English readers as the following article will show.  Nils Aas wrote one of the few articles about Piet Hein, concentrating exclusively on grooks.  Roger Stevenson, Professor of Modern Languages at Southern Oregon University, provided the translation of this brief, but highly informative article. The * parenthetical comments are mine.


“If reason could be formulated as some kind of wonderful ism, there would be hope that it could be spread.”  Piet Hein

The most widely known of his output, the upwards of 10,000 grooks, is a specialty for which one can easily find literary influences(Christian Morgenstern, for example), but which are, nevertheless, completely his own.  The word “grook” is an invention of Hein’s(with the possible inspiration of the partridge, according to Johannes V. Jensen), and it has its own grammatical rules.  Throughout more than forty years, and through an eventual universal diffusion, the grooks have shown to be able to withstand even the most persistent repetition.  The grooks are a separate art form that are completely original, and which can be compared to Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, Johannes V. Jensen’s myths(* He wrote The Long Journey in which he attempted to rewrite the Genesis myth from a Darwinian perspective.) and Storm Peterson’s flies( *He was a Danish cartoonist, and his “Daily Flies” were drawings accompanied by philosophical sayings.)  Like everything that Hein produced, they are art forms in every way.  In various newspapers and journals of the 1930s, among others in Politiken’s “Day to Day” column, Hein had published several short poems, which later found their way into the collection of Grooks.  After the 9th of April 1940(the day Denmark was overrun and occupied by the German army), the Grooks appeared regularly in Politiken where, just like Poul Henningsen’s Musical Review songs(*Henningsen was an author, architect, and polemicist, who published a diatribe about Danish culture.), they were able to ridicule the occupation power:  “The cultural community depends on the power of understanding”(from Piet Hein’s poem, The Tenth Muse, Christmas, 1941.)  The Grooks appeared originally with the name Kumbel Kumbell in Politiken’s daily nonsense column”Just Think”.  Moreover, Hein furnished this column with aphoristic material under the name Notorius Jubelco.  These were eventually published under the title Word in 1949.  As these poems grew more and more popular with the time, Hein used the pseudonym Kumbel, which served as his alter-ego in the years to follow.  Eventually, Hein would even use his own name for the poems that were formally written by Kumbel.  The Dutch name Piet Hein helped perpetuate this pseudonym:  Piet can be translated as either stone or rock.  Hein translates as a whetstone, and, together with Kumbel, the meaning becomes a stone with an inscription, a memorial stone.  The poems should be able to withstand the ravages of time and be their own monument.

One of my favorite Grooks is the following(minus the drawing):

A bit beyond perception’s reach,

I think I sometimes see

that life is two locked boxes

each containing the other’s key.

And Some More Russian Humor

As President Vladimir Putin has become more intolerant of criticism and more autocratic in tone, Russian humor has risen to the occasion.  Putin, who was once an object of respect, even reverence, has become the subject of a slew of anecdotes and jokes.  Here are some samples:

1.  “Next year, things will get better”, said Putin.  “We’re so happy for you”, said the Russian people.

2.  Putin has a great love for animals:

He flies with the vultures.

He kisses the tigers.

But he takes the jackals and swine straight into the Kremlin.

3.  Putin declared that there is no reason for increasing costs, because the costs will increase without any reason.

4.  “Vladimir Vladimirovich, what do you plan to do about the meteorite?”

“It already fell!”

5.  Putin planned to visit Antarctica and the local penguins were in a panic.  However, they understood that no matter what, they would have to follow the leader of the flock.

6.  “Putin is our sun; you cannot look at him without tears.”

7.  “Vladimir Vladimirovich, you said this isn’t the same as 1937(a period of heightened Stalinist oppression).  What is the difference?”

” Well, in 1937, people weren’t put in prison for dancing in churches.”

I couldn’t resist posting the following pictures of Russian leaders from a nesting doll.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

Yurij Andropov

Yurii Andropov

Leonid Brezhnev

Leonid Brezhnev

Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin

Vladimir Lenin

Vladimir Lenin