Julio Noboa Polanco’s ‘Identity‘ functions as a rejection of conformity, preferring to celebrate individuality, even when it threatens to make life difficult. Using the extended metaphor of a weed, the poet successfully juxtaposes his perception of a fulfilled life with a more conventional one. Ultimately, by subverting the readers’ expectations of self-hood, Noboa Polanco challenges them to critique their own preconceptions.
‘Identity‘ offers an unapologetically radical version of identity, one that is rooted in individualism and conviction.
The poem immediately establishes a contrast between the narrator and those around him, who are mocked for their uniformity and cultivated sense of identity. The poet compares them to flowers, which allows the narrator to stand out by identifying with the ordinarily reviled weed. By emphasizing this contrast, Noboa Polanco is able to challenge his readers’ preconceived notions of beauty and autonomy.
The poem goes on to explore characteristics that are normally considered abhorrent, like ugliness and smelling unpleasant. However, the narrator defends these features and regards them as preferable to fitting in for the sake of it.
Julio Noboa Polanco was born in New York in 1949 to Puerto Rican parents and was a professor who wrote extensively about the manner in which Latin Americans had been represented and excluded from the American cultural narrative. He wrote ‘Identity‘ in 1963 while in high school, originally in Spanish under the title ‘Identidad‘ before he later translated it. It was later claimed that the poem was conceived after the poet broke up with his girlfriend. Despite writing poems from a young age and having a respected academic career, ‘Identity‘ was Julio Noboa Polanco’s only published poem.
You can read the full poem here.
Let them be as flowers,
always watered, fed, guarded, admired,
but harnessed to a pot of dirt.
The first stanza begins by identifying the adversarial and ambiguous “them” to which the narrator defines himself in opposition. He uses the simile to liken them to flowers which, in spite of their ordinarily positive connotations, the poet uses as an example of their conformity and mocks them for it. The list of verbs in the second line continues this trend as, despite the fact they seem positive, they emphasize the passivity of the flowers, which are acted upon but never assert independence. Noboa Polanco then reminds the reader that no matter how beautiful a flower is, it is still harnessed to a pot of dirt. The blunt nature of this description serves to undermine the positive connotations of flowers, and the word “harnessed” reminds the reader that his peers are not free because of their adherence to societal expectations.
I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed,
wind-wavering above high, jagged rocks.
The second stanza is a departure from the first insofar as it begins to outline the narrator’s sense of themselves more explicitly. They profess that they’d rather be a tall and ugly weed than the flowers of the previous stanza. These adjectives are interesting as being tall is sometimes seen as an attractive trait which shows the narrator feels his peers would happily forgo this positive feature if it meant they didn’t have to stand out. Likewise, the adjective “ugly” is surprising as it is rarely a coveted attribute which encourages the reader to explore why they hold physical beauty in such high regard at all.
The alliterative “clinging on cliffs” imbues the second line with a harsh, aggressive sound to mirror the poet’s forthright views on the nature of self-hood. By likening themselves to an eagle using a simile, the narrator juxtaposes their feelings of autonomy and freedom with the stagnant flowers he used to represent his peers. Similarly, the verbs are attributed to the narrator to emphasize that standing out from the crowd is an affirmative action and requires a degree of agency that is inhibited if one worries about the opinions of those around them.
To have broken through the surface of stone,
to live, to feel exposed to the madness
carrying my soul, my seed,
beyond the mountains of time or into the abyss of the bizarre.
The poet imbues the third stanza with thrilling romantic imagery to showcase the wondrous nature of living a life without constraint. The sibilance in the opening line mirrors the sound of rushing wind, allowing the reader to embody the eagle of the second stanza and feel the excitement of life on the wing.
Similarly, the hyperbolic reference to the “eternal sky” highlights how ridiculous it is to be confined by the expectations of others when there are limitless ways to live your life. It also implies that living a more individualistic life is somehow more spiritual, as the eternal sky has clear religious connotations. This interpretation is strengthened by the reference to the soul, which also acts as a reminder that the poet is not merely referring to cosmetic changes to their life but that the poem is concerned with identity at all levels of the self.
Finally, the metaphorical claim that living life this way can carry you “beyond the mountains of time” reinforces the poet’s view that abiding by the whims of our peers is dangerous as they are liable to change with time, whereas everyone’s true identity is constant.
I’d rather be unseen, and if
then shunned by everyone,
where they’re praised, handled, and plucked
by greedy, human hands.
The narrator states their preference is to be ignored or dismissed over the alternative, which they regard as insipid, as demonstrated by the adjective “pleasant.” To the narrator, these qualities demonstrate a lack of individuality which he rejects, even if the alternative is isolation. The word “clusters” reminds the reader that the narrator’s dislike of the flowers is largely due to the fact they are all alike, as opposed to their banality which he might otherwise excuse. He despises banality because it is required to fit in, rather than hating it intrinsically.
The poet uses the rule of three when describing how the flowers are “praised, handled and plucked” in order to emphasize the fact that, when attempting to fit in, people surrender their agency. Furthermore, the verb “handled” has unsavory connotations and implies the people are at risk of being taken advantage of if they elect to assimilate rather than stand out. Finally, the reference to humans is curious as, symbolically, that is what is represented by the flowers anyway. By referring to them explicitly, the poet could suggest that the people who are trying to fit in are somehow debasing themselves by denying their individuality which, the narrator believes, is what makes us human.
I’d rather smell of musty, green stench
I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed.
The final stanza continues the poem’s pattern of juxtaposing what is normally considered desirable with things we’d normally avoid in order to subvert the readers’ expectations and challenge their conceptions. In this case, it is the adjectives “musty” and “sweet that are contrasted. Interestingly, the poet refers to their preference to be a “tall, ugly weed” as a hypothetical, as shown by his use of the word “if.” By doing this, Noboa Polanco reminds the reader that the path they are advocating is not necessarily easy to achieve and that it will require work. He believes that the benefits of this individual lifestyle outweigh the negatives and is preferable to having a life dictated by the opinions of those around you.
The poem’s central and fairly dogmatic message is that people should cultivate their own sense of self and purpose. To Julio Noboa Polanco, this means separating oneself from the group if and when they begin to homogenize. The poem clearly offers the view that such uniformity is to be avoided, even if it means leading a life that is ignored or made fun of. Given the poem was written when the poet was still a teenager, it is not difficult to read it in the context of adolescent social circles, where not fitting in is a frightening prospect.
Despite a prolific career in academia, during which he published many works in the fields of social studies and history, ‘Identity‘ is Julio Noboa Polanco’s only published poem. He originally wrote the poem in Spanish under the title ‘Identitad‘ before later translating it.
Julio Noboa Polanco is purported to have written the poem in the aftermath of a break-up with his then-girlfriend while at high school in 1963. The poem’s central theme of belonging reflects the apprehension that arises in adolescence, especially when there is uncertainty in one’s private life. However, the poem can also be read in the context of the poet’s Latino identity, which may also have served as inspiration.
The poem is written in free verse and has five stanzas. The lack of structural continuity mirrors the individualistic path the narrator is advocating for, where there are no guidelines to follow. Furthermore, the unpredictable nature of the line and stanza lengths reminds the reader that following one’s own path is not straightforward and that one should be wary of missteps.
The theme of identity is imbued throughout the poem, even though the word itself does not appear. This functions as a microcosm of the poem’s message, as the sum of your experiences and personality become your identity even though each individual moment appears negligible. The poet suggests that a person’s identity can evolve like a plant if nurtured a certain way, even though it began as a seed like the others. This reminds the reader that their identity is not passive but rather something they can shape and influence.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Identity‘ might want to explore similar poetry. For example:
- ‘Identity‘ by Elizabeth Jennings – A fascinating companion piece that explores how a person’s identity is wrapped up in perception.
- ‘Jamaican British‘ by Raymond Antrobus – A contemporary exploration of a person whose identity is contested due to their different cultural influences.
- ‘White Lies‘ by Natasha Trethewey – A poetic exploration of racial identity in the American South.