The Simple and Subversive Poetry of Piet Hein

When I was in elementary school someone gave me a big book of quotes on various subjects. One piece that stuck out were the simple lines:

Put up in a place
where it’s easy to see
the cryptic admonishment
T. T. T.

When you feel how depressingly
slowly you climb,
it’s well to remember that
Things Take Time!

That poem, or more properly, grook, was written by Danish scientist, poet and inventor Piet Hein.

If Hein already sounds like an interesting person, that’s because he was. Born in 1905, he was a creative and gifted thinker in a range of fields.

He began publishing his grooks – or gruks, for ‘GRin & sUK’ (“laugh & sigh”, in Danish) – in the daily newspaper Politiken in 1940. The works were printed under the headline “From day to day” and were taken as “poetic comments on small and great occurrences in everyday life.”

His first grook, for instance, read:

Losing one glove
is certainly painful,
but nothing
compared to the pain,
of losing one,
throwing away the other,
and finding
the first one again.

There’s something simple, playful, and relate-able in those simple lines about losing gloves.

But is that what the poem is really about?

The poem appeared shortly after the beginning of the Nazi occupation, and was interpreted by many – though not the censors – to have a more subversive meaning: When your freedoms is lost, don’t throw away your patriotism and become a collaborator.

Incidentally, Hein initially published under the pseudonym “Kumbel Kumbell,” kumbel being an Old Norse word for tombstone.

Perhaps one of his better known grooks is:

Taking fun
  as simply fun
and earnestness
  in earnest
shows how thoroughly
  thou none
of the two
  discernest.

A scientist by training – Hein worked with Niels Bohr for several years – he was also a dedicated artist, “Art,” he said, “is this: art is the solution of a problem which cannot be expressed explicitly until it is solved.”

In the end, Hein wrote more than 7000 grooks. He wrote in Dutch and English, but had his poems translated into many languages. As his estate puts it:

The small grooks belong to everybody, exactly as was Piet Hein’s original intention.

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