Literary Shelf

Piet Hein: The Emperor of Epigrams

Thinking causes lots of pain
Talking doesn’t cost a thing
Therefore, rest your weary brain
And give your tongue a fling

(Economy of Mind- Piet Hein.
That explains why I dabble more in talks
than thoughts)

Circa 1993. I was working as a project Manager of a detailed Engineering organization called FEDO (FACT Engineering and Design Organization) in Cochin. One day Mr. P. Radhakrishnan, our General Manager (Projects), who had just returned after a design kick off meeting with M/s Haldor Topsoe in Denmark for a new Ammonia plant for FACT, Cochin called me in his room to brief me about the discussions. After our conversation, he presented me a book he had picked up from a book store in Copenhagen. The book was by a Danish author called ‘Piet Hein’ and the title sounded strange – “Grooks”.  

I had no idea about any Danish writers except the fairy tale king Hans Christian Andersen. When I opened the book I saw on each page a comic illustration and an epigrammatic verse under it. Little did I know then that I was encountering the work of one of the greatest minds of 20th century. Piet Hein is today regarded as a national institution of Denmark like the Little Mermaid statue at the entrance to Copenhagen harbor.

Piet Hein was born in 1905 and died at the ripe age of 91 in 1996. He was truly an exceptional genius of eclectic talents. A great Artist, a poet jotting light summer breeze type poems, a theoretical physics scientist, an architect of slender designs and modern buildings, an interior furniture designer, inventor of mathematical games and puzzles, artist of brilliant sketches- he was a master of all trades and dabbled in all with a Midas touch.

In the depth and breadth of his thinking he draws comparison only to the Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci. In fact many people have called him the lone Renaissance man of twentieth Century. His circle of acquaintances stretched from scientists like Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein to comedians such as Charlie Chaplin. Though an indisputable genius, his fame has still not crossed far beyond the borders of Denmark.

It is difficult to say exactly what his profession was, as his accomplishments are spread over so many disciplines. As a poet he created thousands of dazzling epigrammatic poems, which he called as Grooks. Millions of his countrymen knew him as ‘Kumbel’, the pen name he used for his poetry. As a philosopher he wrote about many cultures and societies. As a mathematician he created several games and puzzles, the most famous of which are the board game Hex and the famous Soma cube, a predecessor of Rubik Cube. Soma Cube is one of the most outstanding puzzles of 20th century. It is a 3x3x3 cube that can be built out of seven different pieces- six made out of 4 cubes and one of 3 cubes. Trying to recreate the larger cube from the pieces can be very frustrating, but surprisingly there are 240 ways to assemble this cube. Moreover there are thousand of other shapes that can be created from these seven pieces. Piet Hein once wrote of this Cube, “It is a beautiful freak of nature that the seven simplest irregular combinations of cubes can form a cube again. Variety growing out of unity returns to unity. It is the world’s smallest philosophical system.”

As a designer he popularized (and named) the "super-ellipse", which is something in between the rectangle and the ellipse (Salt and pepper shaker set and dining tables now come in super-ellipses). In 1964 he was asked to solve a traffic problem of Sergel’s Square in Stockholm. A traffic loop was needed in the roughly rectangular city center. A circle would not work, an ellipse wasted space in the corners and a rectangle would not allow fast traffic flow. The super-ellipse solved the problem. This form also came in a 3D version and was called "the super egg" or "the super-ellipsoid". The super-ellipse went on to a career in furniture and industrial design in the 50's and 60's. It also stars as the body of Big Mike, the Viridian mascot used by the Viridian environmental cult group. Super egg design ranges from the salad bowls in your home to Swedish city centers.

As an artist and constructor, Piet Hein gave form to beautiful pieces of furniture, and he contributed to make "Scandinavian design" become an international conception. As a philosopher he always tried to build a bridge between the "hard" technical and natural sciences and the "soft" humanistic subjects. In the 40s he began to describe the great divide of our day; the divide, not between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, but between the ‘knows’ and the ‘know nots’. His solution was art. In his own words- “After all, what is art? Art is the creative process and it goes through all fields. Einstein’s theory of relativity – now that is a work of art! Einstein was more of an artist in physics than on his violin. Art is this: art is the solution of a problem which cannot be expressed explicitly until it is solved.”

In 1940, early in the Second World War, Piet Hein twice had to go underground, as he had been president of an anti-Nazi union. Although he could no longer manufacture his inventions during the war, this did not stop him working and he became a prolific poet much appreciated by the Danes. That was the beginning of his literary phase.

He wrote over 10,000 Grooks and it is his Grooks that made him very dear to many. They contain his whole philosophy, in manageable chunks. They have been compared to Biblical proverbs, or the writings of Goethe. You may ask what exactly is a grook? 'Grook' ('gruk' in Danish) is a word invented by Hein himself to describe his short, aphoristic poems. There being no formal definition, the best I can do is to try to capture the unmistakable, but surprisingly elusive spirit underlying Hein's poems by illustrating some of them. Given in bracket are my silly comments.

What Love is Like

Love is like
a pineapple,
sweet and

(This is superb analogy. I liked the rare rhyme of pineapple with indefinable)

The Road to Wisdom

The road to wisdom? –
Well, it’s plain and simple to express:
and err
and err again
but less
and less
and less.

(This is indeed my favorite. A universal maxim that can be applied to all who desire progress and success in life. Can also serve as a corporate Motto of any organization. We have to learn from our mistakes)


Problems worthy
of attack
prove their worth
by hitting back.

(I now know why Maths homework is tiring. Ha! Ha!)


Put up in a place
where it's easy to see
the cryptic admonishment
When you feel how depressingly
slowly you climb,
it's well to remember that
Things Take Time.

(Bloggers here who are tired of chasing their dreams can mash and drink this slogan)

Speed it Up

To start in a hurry
And finish in haste
Will minimize worry
And maximize waste

(I tell this to some Saudi Bosses who chase our operational Staff for quick start up of our plants after a shut down)

For a Change

Life showers such a lot on us
While Death, however strange
Will surely be monotonous
And that will make a change

(This grook is very cool in its eerie conclusion! Surprise paradigm shifts are attributes of many of his grooks)

A Psychological Tip

Whenever you're called on to make up your mind,
and you're hampered by not having any,
the best way to solve the dilemma, you'll find,
is simply by spinning a penny.
No - not so that chance shall decide the affair
while you're passively standing there moping;
but the moment the penny is up in the air,
you suddenly know what you're hoping.

(Very true! How profound! We know what we want when we are driven to that crucial juncture!)


A box of dates
Embodies a
Malicious sense of fun
You eat enough,
You eat some more,
You eat until you are done.
And then you go
And wash your hands-
And take another one.

(I have done this many times. I even wash my mouth and go for another Jalebi)

Prayer to the Sun

Sun that gives all things birth
Shine on everything on earth!
If that's too much to demand
Shine at least on this our land
If even that's too much for thee
Shine at any rate on me

(I liked that compulsive selfish tone of ‘at any rate’)


My reading of Pornography
convinces me afresh
that satisfaction of the flesh
are better in the flesh

(No wonder Piet Hein got married many times)

Hide Nothing 

On thoughts and words
If your thoughts
are rubbish merely
don’t express yourself
Too clearly

(I will remember it whenever I am asked to give a comment in an open forum)

Now you would agree with me that Grooks are among the wittiest, most unobvious, most thought-provoking, most pleasing epigrams written anywhere. They always take the form of short rhymes, usually good-humored, always unpretentious and always rewarding. They are easy to read and enjoyable which compels me often to put aside ponderous philosophies to immerse myself in Grooks. You can notice from ‘Grooks’ that they very perceptive, varies from the gently eccentric to the funny. They have a deceptively simple style that hides their richly multifaceted nature while robbing it of none of its impact. The average Grook reads like something between a nursery rhyme and a proverb, and like them, is absolutely distinctive.

Even with very little formal structure, Grooks manage to be so strongly stamped with style and individuality. It's amazing the amount of sheer insight Hein manages to pack into what is, on the surface, practically a children's rhyme. Knowing and using them has greatly enriched my life. Grooks display an astonishing blend of saneness and silliness. Hein hoped that the grooks would be his legacy. He learned several other languages in order to translate them himself

Piet Hein once said, "Man is the animal that draws lines which he himself then stumbles over." What a rare insight into the genesis of a grook . We all draw our ellipses and rectangles in our life and finally stumbles over the labyrinth of lines we create . I believe that his ideas are needed now than ever. In my opinion Grooks are a gift to humanity for us to remain sane in an insane world. They are gems that grace and enliven the reflective experience.

In trying to decide whether Piet Hein was a scientist or an artist, I reach the conclusion that like his super ellipse he was neither one thing nor the other, but was a beautiful blend of the two. Possibly he would have added, “I am not even that.”

Despite his grook to

'Shun advice at any price,
that's what I would call good advice',

I heartily recommend Grooks to all reflective and good-humored people in Boloji.  


More by :  P. G. R. Nair

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