A poet with a slide rule | Sunday Observer

A poet with a slide rule

Piet Hein
Piet Hein

Why do we want to read poetry when there is enough prose around us? This appears to be the reason why most students keep away from poetry. The scene was not much different when we studied poetry a long time ago. Many students even at that time opted to do some other subject leaving out English Literature simply because of poetry. If you approach poetry the correct way, it is not such a difficult subject to learn. About two or three decades ago students did not have access to books that helped them to understand the rudiments of poetry. However, the scene has changed for the better today.

Prof. D.C.R.A. Goonetillleke’s Guide to Poetry, published recently, is an excellent book to help beginners to learn different types of poetry such as ballads, Elizabethan poetry, metaphysical poetry, Augustan poetry, Romantic poetry, Victorian poetry, modern British poetry, post-colonial poetry, American poetry and European poetry.


At first glance, a poem usually would make some sense and give a certain degree of pleasure, but it may not yield everything at once. As my poetry guru – A.M.G. Sirimanne - always insisted, poetry is not to be galloped over like the daily news because a poem differs from most prose, in that, it is to be read slowly, carefully and attentively. Not all poems are difficult, of course, and some can be understood and enjoyed on the first reading. However, good poems yield more if read twice; and the best poems - after ten, twenty, or a hundred readings – still go on yielding.

Poets come from different backgrounds. All of them may not be literary men. Sometimes, lawyers, engineers and architects have produced readable poetry. Most of us may not be aware of the Danish mathematician, inventor, designer, author and poet, Piet (pronounced ‘Pete’) Hein who wrote under the pseudonym “Kumbel” (meaning tombstone). His short poems known as, “gruks” or “grooks” first appeared in the daily newspaper Politiken. He was born on December16, 1905, and died on April 17, 1996.

When the Germans invaded Denmark he had three choices: flee to Sweden, join the Danish Resistance Movement (DRM) or remain at home risking arrest by the Nazis. He decided to join the DRM. Instead of taking up a gun, he took up the pen. His first ‘grook’ was passed before publication by the censors who did not understand its hidden meaning:

Consolation grook

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.


The Danes understood its meaning clearly and the poem appeared as graffiti all over the country. The hidden meaning of the ‘grook’ was that even if you lose your freedom (“losing one glove”), do not lose your patriotism and self-respect by collaborating with the Nazis (“throwing away the other”). After liberation from the Nazis, Scandinavian architects who were tired of square buildings approached Piet Hein for a solution. He came up with a solution which came to be known as ‘superellipse.’ It became the hallmark of modern Scandinavian architecture.

Piet Hein goes down in history as an astonishing Dane who united the two worlds of science and art. “Artists”, he said, “should be artists with real things.” His ‘superellipses’ became as common in Europe as his ‘grooks’ were in Scandinavia. Because of his outpouring of poetry, Hein was called the Hans Christian Anderson in Denmark. Some people compared him to the celebrated Greek philosopher Plato. They were a public acknowledgement of his status as a universal man.

In today’s society some people are specialists. Hein did not dispute the need for specialization, but he thought in a different way. According to him, a specialist should know the total human activity. Some of his words are prophetic. He said, “All problems lose their meaning when we amputate them, cut off what we want in order to make them fit into our random frames of specialization. You must take the whole field of human knowledge and human activity into account for the problems to make sense.”

Field of activities

Having studied physics, philosophy and mathematics, he started writing poetry. He confessed that he could not say where his activity as a scientist ended and where his activity as a man of letters began. He believed that his field of activity is across the borderlines. He said, “What I write and these other things I do all flow from the same kind of imagination. Whether writing a poem or solving a technical problem, I think the same.”

During the Nazi invasion, Hein had to go underground, but he found a way to express his opinion through small poems which were ‘pensatory and philosophical’. The 7,000-odd ‘grooks’ he wrote were intended to deliver subtle messages to the Danes. He believed that knowing too much – or rather, thinking that you know too much – can be a hindrance to creativity. He worked on the principle of being unwise. His most widely known ‘grook’ had only 14 words:

There is

one art,

no more,

no less:

to do

all things



Because of his mathematical precision in poetry, Piet Hein is known as a poet with a slide rule.

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