On Hesitation: A versay


(A “versay” is a form I invented; a kind of essay which considers its subject by means of the sort of reverie by which poetry thinks things through. This one was originally published in the Seven Thunders  newsletter [Autumn, 2006]. 

On rising this morning, two readings gave me     pause                                                             on the dogged course set by my “Tuesday” lists.

The first:

A Good Habit: You can add “intentionality to your day by pausing and taking a breath and then saying to yourself what you are just about to do. By placing these little pauses between tasks you bring heightened meaning to oven overlooked, so-called mundane things. Just before you answer the phone, take a breath and on the exhalation say that you are answering the phone with gracefulness. When you sit down for meditation, tell yourself what you are going to do, and then take a breath, sit down. This way, you nurture the subject self and avoid the automatisms of being an object self–that machine-like you that does just one thing after another without being present as a Thou. In time, you will not even have to put out the effort to do this; it will become “second nature.” (from The Way Through: A Contemplative Companion. #22, Spring, 2006, p. 2)

The second was this poem:

Hesitation: An Assay

Sometimes only a slowing                                                                                                                  

so momentary it can scarcely be seen–                                                                                          

as if a dog,                                                                                                                                  

chasing something large and swift and important,                                                                      

were distracted by the white tremor of  an overhead moth.                                


Other times a full lifetime tentative, lost.                                        


The line of the roof in the child’s crayoned drawing                                                                    

can show a hesitation almost fatal.                                                                                              

The rain                                                                                                                                          

comes to it hard or less hard,                                                                                                

knowing nothing of hesitation’s rake-toothed debate.


And the two lovers                                                                                                                          

now concealed around the corner?                                                                                              

They fool no-one, not even themselves,                                                                                    

pausing in their own shadows outside a locked door. 

If pleasure requires prolonging, then these lovers.

Yet slowness alone is not to be confused                                                                                          

with the scent of the plum tree just before it opens.

(–Jane Hirschfield, After)

When I read A Good Habit, I am gently chastened and directed, told how certain behaviors might bring me closer to (w)holiness. The words are met by the mind, and the mind is grateful: grateful for the focus toward behaviors which, practiced, might instruct the heart.

Reading Hesitation: An Assay (by poet and Zen Buddhist Jane Hirschfield), I am illumined, in-formed– a different quality of experience. In Hesitation, the very reverie which the poem contemplates –of which it speaks– is the one through which it also sees (this, I would argue, could define “a poem”). The words are met by the heart, and inscribed there, and the heart is directly instructed (from the Latin, in-struere, “to build into”). That is, it is transformed. No need, after (or not the same need) to willfully direct ones’ attentive behavior; the self which attends and behaves is changed.

On this difference between the effects of poetry and prose, Theodore Roethke wrote,

The novel can teach us how to act; the poem, and music, how to feel: and the feeling is vastly  more important. […] Once we feel deeply […] we begin to behave. 

And I feel so grateful for both of these: for the power of prose to chasten (which means “to purify”), by way of the mind, and for poetry’s power to aim from and for the heart. Grateful to prose for its power to effect, by way of the mind, the heart’s receptivity. While poetry is the way by which my heart (once receptive) actually receives.

On the dogged course set by my Tuesday lists, I hesitated,                                                            veered into this.

Then this:


Isn’t fixed       (I saw, and cut the                                                                     

“The” from its name above)

Nor does it change–

Truth is always in motion,

Belongs nowhere, to no-one–

Doubt’s its receiver,

Certainty the deaf ear

(What does certainty offer?

Only anxiety,

Only itself to blame)…

–Donna Henderson



1. The Way Through, edited by nancy and Marv Hiles, is a seasonal publication of the Iona Center, Inc., an organization housed in the Santa Sabina Retreat Center in San Rafael, CA, “dedicated to the nurture of contemplative life through publications, retreats, and programs.” Correspondence and requests for sample copies may be directed to the Iona Center, P.O. Box 1528, Healdsburg, CA, 95448 

2. Hirschfield, Jane. After (Poems). New York: Harper-Collins, 2006

3. Roethke, Theodore, “On the Poet and His Craft.” Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1965, p. 26. 

Author: Donna C Henderson

Donna Henderson lives on the banks of the Deschutes River in Maupin, Oregon, where she also practices psychotherapy, poetry, music, Reiki, and teaches yoga, among other things.

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