If you don't already know, hang with me and by the end of this column I'll tell you what a "Grook" is.
For now, however, the story begins like a medieval murder mystery.It was 2 a.m.. I was lying in bed reading a book by a New England monk named David Steindl-Rast. Every few pages he'd take a break, triple-space, and stick in a funny little rhyme. The rhymes read like English haiku poetry. Odd, the way Ogden Nash is odd, yet profound - like the book of Proverbs.
And they were scattered randomly around like droppings from the Bird of Paradise.
Each rhyme was followed by a name: Piet Hein.
A few days go by.
Now I'm on Cannery Row in Monterey, Calif., doing stories on John Steinbeck. Several journalists are interviewing a woman who runs a small Steinbeck museum.
"We've had several famous people here," she says. "We had the immortal Danish poet Piet Hein come by."
"Piet Hein?" I say, "you're kidding."
A reporter nudges me. "Right, pal," he whispers, "like you know Piet Hein from Henny Penny."
I decided then it was time to get to the bottom of things.
No book stores in Salt Lake City carried Hein's books. No writers I spoke with could place his name. Finally I went by the Salt Lake City library. It took me a minute to stumble through all the computer commands, but I found one listing for Piet Hein.
PIET HEIN, it said: GROOKS 1, GROOKS 2, GROOKS 3 - 839.81 H468gr. IN.
With some help from a Dewey Decimal expert, I soon had my hands on a bunch of Grooks. On the back cover of "Grooks 1" was a note:
A grook is a short, aphoristic poem, accompanied by an appropriate drawing revealing in a minimum of words and with a minimum of lines some basic truth about the human condition.
Grooks were created originally during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. They began life as a sort of underground language just out of reach of the understanding of the Germans. They have since become one of the most widely read forms of composition in the Scandinavian - and English - languages.
So now you know.
And the master of the Grook was a Danish scientist named Piet Hein - a man who wrote essays, poems, did sculpture and designed two board games for Parker Brothers: SOMA and Super-Egg. Hein has passed on, but his Grooks live on. Not long ago they prompted the normally sober literary critic Louis Untermeyer to exclaim: "There is nothing like a Dane."
I've included an example of Grooks here.
And the funny thing about Hein's Grooks, I've found, is there's one for everybody.
This one seemed to be aimed right at me:
Long-winded writers I abhor,
and glib, prolific chatters;
give me the ones who tear and gnaw
their hair and pens to tatters:
who find their writing such a chore
they only write what matters.