To Be a Person: Jane Hirshfield’s Playful and Poignant Poem About Bearing Our Human Condition
By Maria Popova
A human being is a living constellation of contradictions, mostly opaque to itself. “Inward secret creatures,” Iris Murdoch called us in reckoning with the blind spots of our self-knowledge. “Humans are just the sort of organisms that interpret and modify their agency through their conception of themselves,” philosopher Amélie Rorty wrote as she examined what makes a person — a self-conception shaped by our astonishing evolutionary inheritance, which took us from bacteria to the Benedictus in a mere minute on the clock-face of the cosmos; a self-conception distorted by an ego that habitually confuses who we wish we were for who we are, redeemed only by the courage to know ourselves.
A generation after Maya Angelou captured these flickering contradictions in her poem “A Brave and Starling Truth,” which sailed into space to remind us that “we are neither devils nor divines,” Jane Hirshfield cracks open this eternal question of what it means to be a person in a lovely poem from her collection The Asking: New and Selected Poems (public library).
TO BE A PERSON
by Jane Hirshfield
To be a person is an untenable proposition.
Odd of proportion,
unbalanced of body, feeling, and mind.
Two predator’s eyes
yet seem always to be trying to look back.
Unhooved, untaloned fingers
seem to grasp mostly grief and pain.
To create, too often, mostly grief and pain.
in witnessed suffering, pleasure.
Some make, of witnessed suffering, beauty.
On the other side —
a creature capable of blushing,
who chooses to spin until dizzy,
likes what is shiny,
demands to stay awake even when sleepy.
Learns what is basic, what acid,
what are stomata, nuclei, jokes,
which birds are flightless.
Learns to play four-handed piano.
To play, when it is needed, one-handed piano.
Hums. Feeds strays.
Says, “All together now, on three.”
To be a person may be possible then, after all.
Or the question may be considered still at least open —
an unused drawer, a pair of waiting workboots.
Complement with Sylvia Plath on the pillars of personhood and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein on what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of physiological and psychological change, then revisit Jane Hirshfield’s wonderful poems “Optimism,” “The Weighing,” and “For What Binds Us,” and her uncommonly insightful prose meditation on how poetry transforms us.
Published October 17, 2023