Thursday, May 19, 2016

Piet Hein - Poet, Freedom Fighter, Smart Watch Content Provider

I first learned of Piet Hein when a friend from shul introduced me to his pithy poems, known as Grooks. Here's a sample:


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

And here, click refresh a few times to see a number of his poems:

Hein's poems go beyond simply being clever. They often seem to make a point that you're familiar, but they do so in a cryptic way. This obfuscation is actually a good thing, as it requires you to think through the text rather than accepting it the way we would a well worn cliche. Using complexity to find simplicity, now that's impressive.

But Hein is more than just a poet with a knack for creating pithy packets of wisdom. For one thing, he was a poet with a purpose.

The first set of published Grooks were actually a form of resistance to the Nazi invasion of Denmark:

Piet Hein, who, in his own words, “played mental ping-pong” with Niels Bohr in the inter-War period, found himself confronted with a dilemma when the Germans occupied Denmark. He felt that he had three choices: Do nothing, flee to “neutral” Sweden or join the Danish resistance movement. As he explained in 1968, “Sweden was out because I am not Swedish, but Danish. I could not remain at home because, if I had, every knock at the door would have sent shivers up my spine. So, I joined the Resistance.”

Taking as his first weapon the instrument with which he was most familiar, the pen, he wrote and had published his first “grook”. It passed the censors who did not grasp its real meaning.


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, however, understood its importance and soon it was found as graffiti all around the country. The deeper 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”), because that sense of having betrayed your country will be more painful when freedom has been found again someday.

Apparently, the poems would make their way from the newspaper to the street by being featured in graffiti.

Hein's messaging brings to mind the Hashtag Activism of today. While it absolutely has its limits, it also has great power. Well crafted messages matter. Hein took this a step further, of course, hiding his messages in plain sight.

Hein, for his part, invented the idea of a Grook. It was similar to other forms of poetry, yet he made it his own. When Arik Fraimovich developed a way to tint Twitter avatars green with one click, he too, found an innovative way to spread a message. Yes, the effect got tiresome, but it still raised awareness to levels one might never have thought possible. Hein knew that there's more than one way to offer resistance, and we should learn from his example.

Finally, it's worth noting that Hein wasn't a poet. He was a scientist. He was a mathematician. He was a designer. He was an inventor. We're so used to categorizing people as either artists or scientist; author or mathematician; it's a pleasure to be reminded that we need not make this distinction.

Take some time to get lost in his poems, they are both delightful and profound.

As for me, I couldn't help but embed a number of his Grooks into a randomized web page, and then wire that web page into my Pebble Smart Watch. Brilliant words are now just a few watch button presses away.

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