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.

PIET HEIN:  GROOKS

“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.