Te Deum

Te Deum is an early Christian hymn often attributed to St. Ambrose, the songwriting bishop of Milan in the fourth century.  The title comes from the opening line, Te Deum laudamus (“Thee, O God, we praise”).

This hymn is associated with New Year’s Eve because those who recite it on the last day of the year can receive a plenary indulgence, in which God forgives the sinner and removes all punishment.  I don’t believe you get it directly from Her (or Him), but from the Catholic Church, and there is a condition attached, that the person who receives it must maintain a state of grace or non-attachment to sin.

Te Deum is also wonderful little poem by Charles Reznikoff (1894 – 1976).  He was a lawyer and legal editor, who as a poet spent most of his career in obscurity, until New Directions put out a collection of previously published poems in 1962, when he was 68.

Reznikoff was associated with William Carlos Williams and Objectivist movement.  He wrote in a spare style that I like.

Te Deum

Not because of victories
I sing,
having none,
but for the common sunshine,
the breeze,
the largess of the spring.

Not for victory
but for the day’s work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.

To me, this poem is not a hymn of praise to God.  I feel Reznikoff is expressing admiration for the commonplace, for daily life, a simple poem celebrating the simplicity of the natural.  Another way of interpreting it, though, is that he saw God everywhere in the everyday world, or as the everyday world. Well, maybe it is praise to God after all.

Reznikoff’s parents were Russian Jews who immigrated to the United States.  Much of his work examined Jewish faith, and Jewish life in America, particularly the experience of emigrants in the tenements of New York city.  Buddhists do not share the beliefs of the Abrahamic religions.  In the literature you will see the word “divine,” (as in the Buddha’s Divine Eye), but it shouldn’t be taken to imply that it emanates from some godly source.  Strip the dharma of all the mystical verbiage and you find teachings genuinely rooted in the soil of everyday life.

A quote I’ve shared before from Hui-neng (638-713), the Sixth Patriarch of the Ch’an school:

The dharma is to be found in this world and not in another. To leave this world to search for the dharma is as futile as searching for a rabbit with horns.”

Dharma in Buddhism usually refers to the teachings, but can also mean the truth, or reality.


Leonard Cohen: It’s Darker Now

A few weeks ago, in an interview for the release of his latest album, You Want It Darker, he said , “I am ready to die. I hope it’s not too uncomfortable. That’s about it for me.”

But I don’t want it darker, it is dark enough, and that’s no way to say goodbye . . .

Most of us first heard about this songwriter-poet from Canada, Leonard Cohen, from Judy Collins.  She had hit with his song Suzanne, originally a poem, Suzanne Takes You Down, from his collection Parasites of Heaven.  

cohen-sel-poemsMy parents gave me his Selected Poems 1956-1968 for my 17th birthday.  That was cool.  They could have given me a book by someone lame, like Rod McKuen.  I’ve had that book 47 years.  It’s been to New Orleans a couple of times, Nebraska, California, and it’s still in good condition.

Born Jewish, you know in the late 70s he began an involvement with Buddhism.  He became an ordained Zen priest in 1998 and lived at the Mount Baldy Zen Monastery for some years.

I loved that voice.  Deep, dark, haunting.  Instantly recognizable.  Beautiful and disturbing.

I’m glad he passed through this way and touched our perfect bodies with his mind.

Here is a poem from Selected Poems, and after that, a video of Tower of Song.  The poem was published in 1966 and the song written in the 80s.

I’ve Seen Some Lonely History

I’ve seen some lonely history
The heart cannot ignore
I’ve scratched some empty blackboards
They have no teachers for

I trailed my meager demons
From Jerusalem to Rome
I had an invitation
But the host was not at home

There were contagious armies
That spread their uniform
To all parts of my body
Except where I was warm

And so I wore a helmet
With a secret neon sign
That lit up all the boundaries
So I could toe the line

My boots got very tired
Like a sentry’s never should
I was walking on a tightrope
That was buried in the mud

Standing at the drugstore
It was very hard to learn
Though my name was everywhere
I had to wait my turn

I’m standing here before you
I don’t know what I bring
If you can hear the music
why don’t you help me sing?


Tagore’s Nobel and the Notes of Forever

This year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan, is not the first lyricist to receive the award.  In 1913, it was given to Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore, who also became the first non-European awarded a Nobel.

Some of you may be aware that the title of this blog, The Endless Further, is borrowed from Tagore (see About).

rtagore3According to the Nobel website, Tagore received the prize “because of his profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse, by which, with consummate skill, he has made his poetic thought, expressed in his own English words, a part of the literature of the West”.

Wikipedia tells us that “the Swedish Academy appreciated the idealistic—and for Westerners—accessible nature of a small body of his translated material focused on the 1912 Gitanjali: Song Offerings.”

I’ve published a number of posts on Tagore so I won’t go into details on the man’s life.  For that, you can read the previous posts or visit the Wikipedia link above.

I will tell you that Tagore remains a towering figure in Indian literature, but today in the West he is largely forgotten and his poetry unknown.  Tagore’s poems are songs, chants.  In English, they become prose poems.  His work is lyrical, moving, graceful, and subtle in self-knowledge.  He composed hymns both sad and joyous, universal songs that touch on an experience ultimately personal.  With his meditative rhythm and evocative lyrics, Tagore gave the world something more than poetry or literature.  They touch our heart, inspirit our mind, cause us to cry or shudder or want to float up and dance among the stars.

The songs of Gitanjali (which literally means “an offering of songs”) are love songs; love for something divine, love between human beings, and love of life itself.  Like Whitman, Tagore did not shy away from the sensual.  He made the sensual beautiful.

In his introduction to the 1913 edition of Gitanjali, W.B. Yeats wrote that “Mr. Tagore, like the Indian civilization itself, has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity.”

Here, then, are two poems from Gitanjali:


I dive down into the depth of the ocean of forms, hoping to gain the perfect pearl of the formless.

No more sailing from harbour to harbour with this my weather-beaten boat. The days are long passed when my sport was to be tossed on waves.

And now I am eager to die into the deathless.

Into the audience hall by the fathomless abyss where swells up the music of toneless strings I shall take this harp of my life.

I shall tune it to the notes of forever, and when it has sobbed out its last utterance, lay down my silent harp at the feet of the silent.


Ever in my life have I sought thee with my songs. It was they who led me from door to door, and with them have I felt about me, searching and touching my world.

It was my songs that taught me all the lessons I ever learnt; they showed me secret paths, they brought before my sight many a star on the horizon of my heart.

They guided me all the day long to the mysteries of the country of pleasure and pain, and, at last, to what palace gate have the brought me in the evening at the end of my journey?


Summer in the Mountains

From Chuang Tzu:

mountains-b1bWandering on the sunny side of Yin Mountain, T’ien Ken came to the banks of the Liao River and met a Man with No Name.  He asked this man, “Could you tell me how to govern the world?”

The Man with No Name said, “Get away from me, peasant! What kind of stupid question is that! I’m busy doing nothing.  You have a lot of nerve coming along with this talk of governing the world and disturbing my mind.”

But T’ien Ken asked his question a second time.

The Man with No Name replied,

“Let your mind wander in simplicity, blend your spirit with the vastness, and follow along with things the way they are.  Rest only in inaction.  Relax your body, expel your intelligence, release both body and mind, and all things will return to their root.  Then the world will be governed.”

By “inaction” the nameless man is referring to wu-wei, which means not to struggle with things, to find a more natural way, to let your spirit flow like a gentle summer breeze.

Li Po, the Chinese poet from the 8th century, like Chuang Tze before him, liked to portray himself as lazy.  More than likely it was partly true, but I suspect the representation was also used as a metaphor, as in this poem, “Summer Day in the Mountains”:

Too lazy to wave a white feather fan,
sitting stripped to the waist in a green wood.
I take off my cap and hang it on a overhanging rock;
the wind through the pine-trees brushes my bare head.

Happy Summer, y’all.  Have fun, and remember to take it easy.

– – – – – – – – – –

Chuang Tzu and Li Po adapted from translations by Burton Watson, Arthur Waley and D. Howard Smith


“Find the cost of freedom buried in the ground”

Memorial Day, a day of remembrance for those who have died serving in America’s armed forces.

Have you ever wondered just how many have died in our country’s major wars?  According to estimates from the Dept. of Defense and the Veterans Administration, the figure is around 1.1 million.  This chart, from pbs.org, breaks it down:


Regardless of how one feels about the nature of war, remembering our fellow citizens who have fallen while serving the country is a good thing.  Like Peter Rothberg, writing in The Nation, “I’ve always been sympathetic to the argument that the best way to honor the fallen is to make every effort to prevent needless deaths in the future. That means engaging in combat and military strikes only as a true last resort.”

In 1916, the great American poet Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), reacting to the horror of World War I, wrote a poem entitled “Grass” in 1916.  In this short and spare piece, he looked beyond the wartime deaths of a single country and time, and used the personification of grass, to invoke the universal ruin of war:


NormandyAmericanCemetery4Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
 What place is this?
 Where are we now?

 I am the grass.
 Let me work.

In Carl Sandburg, scholar and biographer, Gay Wilson Allen wrote that in this poem “the scars of World War I will be covered by the perennial grass, not in a Pantheistic transmutation of men into vegetation, but as nature erases the scars of human violation of life.”

Photo: Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France