The poem challenge for Week #3 of the Weekly Poem Project was the double dactyl: a humorous form not unlike the limerick, but following different rules. In brief:

  • The poem consists of 2 stanzas of 4 lines.
  • The first 3 lines of each stanza are in dactylic dimeter (DA-da-da | DA-da-da).
  • The 4th line of each stanza is a “choriamb”–a term I was previously unfamiliar with, but it’s basically a trochee followed by an iamb, (or an iamb, mirrored): DA-da | da-DA.
  • The choriambs rhyme.

There are some other rules that are generally followed:

  • The first line is a nonsense word or phrase.
  • The second line of the poem names the subject.
  • One of the lines in the second stanza should be a single word (this is where the name double dactyl comes from, I guess).

Here is a metapoetic example by Roger L. Robinson, from the Wikipedia entry on the form:

Long-short-short, long-short-short
Dactyls in dimeter,
Verse form with choriambs
(Masculine rhyme):

One sentence (two stanzas)
Challenges poets who
Don’t have the time.

And here is my example, in honor of another writer of short, challenging, and often irreverent poems:

Emily Dickinson
Loved to write poetry
Dressed all in white.

As a result she was
If she saw commas when
Dashes were right.


My friend and colleague Melissa Girard asked me a week or two ago, when I was telling her about the Weekly Poem Project, if I’d ever heard of one of her favorite forms, the grook. No, indeed I hadn’t! Melissa actually studies and writes about and publishes on poetry, and so I prevailed on her to send me something about it, which I’ll duly post for your edification when she gets around to it. In the meantime, I did a little research on my own– and I feel compelled to share what I found, because I am full of geeky excitement about it. (Warning: I am about to go on for a bit here.)

The grook was invented by a Danish poet named Piet Hein, whom I’d never heard of before but apparently is as well known to Danes as Hans Christian Andersen. According to a great Life Magazine profile from 1966, Hein was/is so popular in Denmark that at that time, one out of ten Danes owned a copy of one of his books of poetry. He also invented the superellipse, a modified elliptical form that is seen everywhere in contemporary Scandinavian architecture–and a lot of the Danish modern furniture that’s so trendy these days. (I think we once owned a dining room table that had a superelliptical top.)

What a fascinating guy. He merges art and science in a way that present-day higher education seems hell-bent on making impossible, with all of the emphasis put on specialization, divisions between disciplines, and so on. Here’s a quote from the Life piece that addresses the seemingly unbridgeable gap between art and science:

We make that gulf the deepest of all. It cuts up our world and makes a deeper cleavage than between West and East, between vegetarians and meat-eaters. Those two orientations are so much accepted that it’s almost enough to show ignorance of mathematics and science and technology to be taken for an expert in the humanistic field and vice versa. Logically speaking, then, in order to be taken as a great sage and as a learned person within both fields, it would suffice to show absolute ignorance in both.

Amen, brother. And here is a pithier quote that gets at the same idea:

If you are only a poet, you are not even that. Artists should be artists with real things.

The Life piece is chock-full of Heinian insights– I could quote more, but will stop here. As for the grook itself: it’s sort of a “know it when you see it” kind of form, from what I can tell. It’s short; it’s aphoristic (a witty expression of a common truth, or a piece of wisdom); it usually rhymes; it has very short lines. It’s not bound by any rules of meter, but the examples I found generally followed some kind of rhythm. Many are accompanied by equally “aphoristic” little drawings. Hein wrote more than 7000 of these things, and also illustrated them. Here’s one example:

grook3And here are a few others, also by Hein:


The road to wisdom?—Well, it’s
plain and simple to express:

and err
and err again,
but less
and less
and less.


There is
one art,
no more,
no less:
to do
all things
with art-

Let’s see what we can do with this. I think the challenge here is that it is a form, but without the rigidity of many forms. I have found that poems like this are usually more challenging to write than ones that have a more rigid meter, rhyme scheme, etc. This may sound counterintuitive–but it’s been true for me, at least. I’m curious to see if you agree.

I’ll try to do one with a drawing. I’m not sure if it’s possible to include drawings in posted comments (or in FB posts), but if you want to draw, you can either submit a link to an image or just email me something, and I’ll post it along with your grook.

I love the name grook, by the way. Supposedly it combines the Danish words for “laugh” (which starts with a gr) and “sigh” (which ends with an uk), but I like that it rhymes in English with “crook,” which seems to echo its rather crooked way of going about things. Plus, the word itself conveys its inherent snarkiness. Grook away, y’all.

And here’s a remarkable coincidence: Hein’s merging of art, technology, and science echoes the work of a local artist who was just announced yesterday as the winner of the $25,000 Sondheim art prize here in Baltimore, Neil Feather. He’s an experimental musician who helped found Baltimore’s annual, totally out-there High Zero music festival–and an inventor of idiosyncratic musical instruments. Here’s Feather playing one of his instruments, the melocipede, at the 2008 High Zero festival–pretty cool.

He won the Sondheim prize for creating what he calls “sound sculptures,” which are sort of like instruments that play themselves. In today’s Baltimore Sun (which also has link to a video featuring Feather and his work), his friend John Berndt says of him, “He’s creating artifacts from another culture, but it’s a culture of one… Maybe two on a good day.” I’ll have to go to the Walters Art Museum to check out his work– along with the other Sondheim Prize finalists. If you’re in the Baltimore area, you should go, too: works by all the finalists and semifinalists are on display at the Walters and at MICA until Aug. 17. The Sondheim show is one of my favorite exhibits to see every year. Here’s a little poem to celebrate these polymaths:

Hein and
show how,
not whether
art and science
can fit


5 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson, Piet Hein, and the grook

  1. I had lunch today with my friend & colleague at Loyola, Nick Miller, and he told me about another double dactyl about Emily Dickinson that he had seen–which he was able to recite almost perfectly by memory. It’s by poet Wendy Cope, from her book Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis. With all due modesty, I think mine is better ;;;;-)

    Emily Dickinson
    Liked to use dashes
    Instead of full stops.

    Nowadays, faced with such
    Critics and editors
    Send for the cops.


  2. Here is an attempt at a grook, though it’s a little long-winded for the form:

    Reddi Whip
    Can get you high,
    Says the man on the train.
    Keep the can upright
    And hold on tight.

    Definitely hits the common truth nail on the head, don’t you think? I’ll have to work on an illustration.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Is this a sweeter, foamier version of what we used to call “huffing”? I have memories of the high school newspaper darkroom being used for this purpose. In fact, wasn’t there was a kid we went to school with who died from huffing photo adhesive or something like that?

    It’s sort of like all of our revisitations of the past … less edgy, less substantive, less dangerous, easier on the taste buds.

    As for the poem itself, I wonder if there should be one more line, rhyming with “train”?


  4. You are right:

    Reddi Whip
    Can get you high,
    Says the man on the train
    With the foamy brain.
    Keep the can upright,
    And hold on tight.

    I can clearly picture that kid, though I don’t remember his name. I have an image of the Life Flight helicopter landing on the school lawn. Awful.


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