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Identity by Julio Noboa Polanco

“Identity” is a free-verse lyric poem written by Julio Noboa Polanco. Through the contrasting symbols of a flower and a weed, the speaker of this poem staunchly advocates for individualism over conformity. In desiderating to be an “ugly weed,” he not only outrightly rejects the beauty of a “pleasant-smelling flower,” which is adored by everyone but also propounds the bold idea of emancipation associated with being like a “weed,” which though is “unseen” and “shunned by everyone,” yet is “strong and free.” Through the manifestation of various poetic devices, Polanco illustrates his ultimate message: individuality is unique, strange, ugly, or shunned it may be, but it is the very majestic essence of freedom and fulfillment.

  • Read the full text of “Identity” below:
Identity
by Julio Noboa Polanco

Let them be as flowers,
always watered, fed, guarded, admired,
but harnessed to a pot of dirt.	

I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed,
clinging on cliffs, like an eagle
wind-wavering above high, jagged rocks.

To have broken through the surface of stone,
to live, to feel exposed to the madness
of the vast, eternal sky.
To be swayed by the breezes of an ancient sea,
carrying my soul, my seed,
beyond the mountains of time or into the abyss of the bizarre.

I’d rather be unseen, and if
then shunned by everyone,
than to be a pleasant-smelling flower,
growing in clusters in the fertile valley,
where they’re praised, handled, and plucked
by greedy, human hands.

I’d rather smell of musty, green stench
than of sweet, fragrant lilac.
If I could stand alone, strong and free,
I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed.

- from Revista Chicano-Riqueña: Nosotros Anthology (1977)
Analysis of Identity by Julio Noboa Polanco


Summary

Julio Noboa in his famous poem “Identity,” uses the extended metaphor of an unwanted “weed” to render the idea of freedom through individuality. Through metaphors, hyperboles, symbols, and paradoxical language, the poetaster paints the vivid contrast between individuality and conformity to show how the emancipation of an individual is linked with their robust refusal to be part of the crowd. The speaker gives his main message of accepting one’s true self and admiring one’s uniqueness rather than adopting a herd mentality. He rejects to be a “pleasant-smelling flower,” who, albeit, is well-praised, guarded, and admired. Yet are “harnessed to a pot of dirt” and therefore are always trapped. In using the metaphors of two plants, “flowers” and “weed,” the speaker expresses his innermost desire to attain freedom by being alone, being unique, and by being a “weed.”

Meaning

In “Identity,” the speaker resists conforming and shows conformity as a weakness. He describes multiple circumstances that stand in sturdy opposition to societal norms and expectations by portraying the idea of being alone, being unique, and being one’s true self in a positive light. Through the metaphorical language, Polanco contrasts a flower with a weed, embracing individuality against the convention and revealing the life that parallels being unique. Since Polanco was a Latino, there are various passages that can aptly relate this poem to the history of Latin Americans in the US. They have always been struggling to establish their “identity” in a culturally dislocated environment.

Structure & Form

“Identity” is a free-verse poem replete with metaphors and hyperboles. It consists of five stanzas with a varying number of lines. The first two stanzas are tercets; the following two are sestets; the last stanza is a quatrain. Even though this poem is written in free-verse, there are a number of internal rhymes, which enhances the reading experience. Because of the speaker’s use of exaggerated language and irregular rhyme scheme, “Identity” can also be called a doggerel verse. Just like the poet’s desire to be free, the poem is also written in free verse with no constraints of poetic conventions.

This poem does not follow any metrical pattern. It contains a few iambs (unstressed-stressed), such as “to live,” “to feel,” etc. Besides, it is interesting to note varying rhythms in the poem. For instance, the repeating sound of “ed” is periodically observed in words like “fed,” “guarded,” “jagged,” “swayed,” and “handled.” This adds a sporadic rhythm. The use of anaphora and repetition of “I’d rather” provides a cadence to the poem.

Literary Devices & Figurative Language

Polanco uses a number of literary devices that enhance the meaning of the poem. Explore the important ones below:

Simile

Polanco makes use of this device in the second stanza. The speaker compares himself to an eagle:

I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed,

clinging on cliffs, like an eagle

wind-wavering above high, jagged rocks.

Extended Metaphor

The poet employs extended metaphors of “flowers” and “ugly weed” throughout the poem. He analogizes a group of people to “flowers” and himself to a “tall, ugly weed.” In comparing himself to a smelly weed, he intends to express his desire of being free than being like beautiful flowers that are “watered, fed, guarded, admired,” but limited only to their pot. He uses a confusing mixed metaphor in the opening lines. The speaker says flowers are “harnessed to a pot of dirt.” He ludicrously compares the harnessing of horses to flowers constrained by a flower pot.

Imagery

There are two images of plants, i.e., flower and weed to represent his idea of individualism and herd mentality. Readers notice the visual imagery of these plants is interlinked to their olfactory imagery.

  • Visual Imagery: There are various visual images of “flowers,” “tall, ugly weed,” “an eagle,” “jagged rocks,” “stones,” “sky,” “sea,” “fertile valley,” and “sweet, fragrant lilac.” 
  • Olfactory Imagery: It occurs in “a pleasant-smelling flower,” “smell of musty, green stench,” and “sweet, fragrant lilac.”

Alliteration

Alliteration can be observed in the following phrases: “clinging on cliffs,” “wind-wavering,” “surface of stone,” “my soul, my seed,” “human hands,” etc. Consonance occurs in the fifth stanza, where the sound of consonant “n” is heard repeatedly: “I’d rather be unseen, and if/ then shunned by everyone.”

Hyperbole

The speaker makes use of hyperbole in the line, “I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed,/ clinging on cliffs, like an eagle.” He exaggeratedly compares the figurative independence associated with “a weed” to the freedom associated with “an eagle.” In comparing the flight of eagles to the ground-rooted weeds, he indeed exaggerates a bit because eagles can fly whereas weeds cannot. Hyperbole is also observed in the line “beyond the mountains of time or into the abyss of the bizarre.” Here the speaker wishes his soul to be like a “seed” that is carried by the “breezes of an ancient sea.”

Repetition

The speaker makes use of this literary device when he repeats “I’d rather” four times in the poem. He intentionally uses this phrase at the beginning of the second, fifth, and sixth stanzas, and in the last line of the poem in order to emphasize his desire of being unbound and free.

Anaphora

The repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive lines can be found in the following lines of the poem:

To have broken through the surface of stone,

to live, to feel exposed to the madness

of the vast, eternal sky.

To be swayed by the breezes of an ancient sea,

Enjambment

Enjambment occurs when one line runs over to the next without any break. Some of the lines where it is prominently used are: “Clinging on cliffs, like an eagle/ wind-wavering above high, jagged rocks,” “To live, to feel exposed to the madness/ of the vast, eternal sky,” “I’d rather be unseen, and if/ then shunned by everyone,” etc.

Line-by-Line Analysis & Explanation

Lines 1-3

Let them be as flowers,

always watered, fed, guarded, admired,

but harnessed to a pot of dirt.

In the first stanza of “Identity,” Polanco uses the trope of “flowers” to describe those who he staunchly rejects. The flower is a symbol that depicts something which is not only beautiful but also highly loved and admired. They are taken care of, “watered, fed, guarded, admired” because they stand on the expectations of people. However, it is in the last line of this tercet when the speaker unveils the dark reality of being nice and beautiful as flowers. He reveals how the flowers may all be cared for but they are all trapped in the same “pot of dirt.” All the flowers in a bunch look the same and they have no freedom of their own. He uses the animal imagery “harnessing” used for horses to show how pretty flowers are too attached to a mere pot.

Lines 4-6

I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed,

clinging on cliffs, like an eagle

wind-wavering above high, jagged rocks.

In this tercet, Polanco uses an extended metaphor of a “tall, ugly weed” to define his rebelling personality. He wishes to be like an “ugly weed” that remains alone and unnoticed by everyone. In showing how weeds are free to be in the midst of natural forces, “clinging on cliffs,” the speaker equates the quality of being alone to freedom and strength.

The poet uses hyperbolical language to dramatically compare the independence associated with weeds “clinging on cliffs” to “an eagle” flying high above the “jagged rocks.” He analogizes weeds to individuality and paints a challenging image of what it means to be away from the crowd. Undoubtedly, the image of an eagle flying high above in the sky and the weeds rooted in the ground are far from being similar. Nevertheless, the ultimate theory that the speaker intends to propound is that of refusing to submit, even if comes at the cost of being neglected like a weed. He shows that being different is doubtlessly liberating.

Lines 7-12

To have broken through the surface of stone,

to live, to feel exposed to the madness

of the vast, eternal sky.

To be swayed by the breezes of an ancient sea,

carrying my soul, my seed,

beyond the mountains of time or into the abyss of the bizarre.

The poem continues to illustrate what individuality brings and what freedom of being alone means. Breaking through the “surface of stone” is like a bold move against the rigid conventions, to accomplish the impossible for self-liberation. According to the speaker, individuality opens a wide canvas of infinities: “To have broken,” “to live,” “to feel exposed” and “To be swayed.” The poetaster makes use of hyperboles to describe what standing alone means: “to feel exposed to the madness/ of the vast, eternal sky” and “To be swayed by the breezes of an ancient sea.”

In making use of exaggeration, he highlights the importance of individuality, thereby portraying it to be an adventurous action worth taking, as against conformity which the speaker feels is dull, unfulfilling, and uninspiring. However, in dramatizing, he makes vague and meaningless claims such as his “soul” being carried like a “seed” by the “breezes of an ancient sea” into the “abyss of the bizarre,” which ostensibly exists beyond “beyond the mountains of time.” The “abyss of the bizarre” signifies the hyperbolic sailing on the “breezes” to reach the realm which is beyond abstraction. Nevertheless, what the speaker strives to offer is an idea of what being unique means: being remembered beyond the ravages of time.

Lines 13-18

I’d rather be unseen, and if

then shunned by everyone,

than to be a pleasant-smelling flower,

growing in clusters in the fertile valley,

where they’re praised, handled, and plucked

by greedy, human hands.

In these lines, the speaker further compares the two plants and justifies his decision to be an “ugly weed.” With the preference of becoming like a weed, the speaker now extends his desire to be alone and “unseen” even though it involves being “shunned” by everyone. He strongly rejects being like a “pleasant-smelling flower” that conforms to the norms and grows in “clusters.”

The poetaster reveals the bitter truth of being amongst the crowd. He shows that to be in “clusters” might initially be admired and “praised” but in the end, it can be “plucked” at any time by the “greedy, human hands.” This demonstrates a sense of uncertainty that those who blindly follow herd instinct are subjected to. The flower, just like a group of people, is “plucked” away from its freedom and prevented from its greater purpose in life.

Lines 19-22

I’d rather smell of musty, green stench

than of sweet, fragrant lilac.

If I could stand alone, strong and free,

I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed.

In the concluding lines of “Identity,” the speaker reiterates his declaration to be an ugly, stinking “weed” rather than to be a “sweet, fragrant lilac.” The essence of the poem is wrapped in the last two lines. The poet conveys the notion of going against societal norms, even if that means being alone on the journey. This is something that would make an individual feel the most satisfied, despite the comfortable environs of a group setting. The poet equilibrates individualism to ultimate liberation and compares conformity to a sign of weakness and enslavement. He asserts his preference for being alone than being part of the herd, even if that means being “ugly,” “unseen,” and “shunned” or smelling of a “musty, green stench.”

The sui generis contrast is explicitly conspicuous throughout the poem, and the use of metaphorical, hyperbolic language is used to emphasize the unimaginable contentment that comes from individuality, despite the fact that it might at the same time mean being neglected and isolated. In this way, the speaker established an identity of his own and proclaims himself as a strong and free individual.

Themes

Individuality vs. Conformity

The most significant theme which can be distinctly observed in the poem “Identity” is that of individuality versus conformity. Through the use of figurative devices, Polanco puts the impetus on the unique idea of individuality by contrasting the freedom of being different with the prosaic constraint of being like everyone else. The line “To have broken through the surface of stone” demonstrates the liberating notion of what it means to stand alone and be free from all the confines of societal norms.

Polanco uses the extended metaphor to sketch a contrasting image of conformity linked to flowers and individuality linked to weeds. The very first stanza of the poem shows that the society with which the speaker disassociates is like “flowers” confined to a pot. The “pot” can be referred to as the society and the cherished “flowers” are those who are trapped in the potted legacy of popular expectations. Flowers growing in clusters or a group of people are “harnessed” to a pot controlled by greedy humans. They are restrained from achieving any great things.

Therefore, the speaker rejects the ideal admiration of society and expresses his desire to be independent by being rather a tall and ugly weed. Through the image of “weed” which is “unseen,” he paints the concept of individuality as not so pleasant looking but rather ugly and deplored. However, that is what the speaker admires and calls emancipating.

Throughout the poem, the speaker battles against the comforting idea of conformity and proffers to stand alone, strong, and free like a “weed.” He details what being a nonconformist and a rebel means. He describes how by being different and alone, one is remembered “beyond the mountains of time” even if it is for their bizarreness. Polanco’s use of hyperbole intensifies his championing of freedom associated with individualism.

Freedom vs. Confinement

The speaker compares two kinds of plants in order to imply two different human conditions. There are two different symbols of nature: a pleasant-smelling flower and an ugly weed. On the one hand, the flower symbolizes constriction, and the weed, on the other, represents freedom. The flowers grow in clusters tied to a pot of dirt, whereas the ugly weed is strong and free-willed like an eagle.

There is an ironic juxtaposition as the weed is also loosely fastened to cliffs like the flower. Since both plants are affixed to a spot, associating the weed with an eagle (a wild bird) makes it not only hyperbolic but also a bit comic because eagles can fly, plants cannot. Therefore, in saying that stinky weeds have more independence than sweet-smelling flowers, the speaker sounds ludicrous.

While saying that flowers may be “watered, fed, guarded, admired” but they can be “handled and plucked/ by greedy, human hands” anytime, the speaker forgets that even weeds can also be plucked or removed at any moment. However, the speaker still feels that being an outcast, ignored like a weed, is more liberating than confining oneself to the pleasant periphery of a pot.

Latin American Identity

Polanco’s poem “Identity,” if studied from the biographical perspective, aptly shows the desire of a speaker seeking his unique identity of being a Latino in a culturally diverse country. History shows how Latinos nearly disappeared under the inclusive categories of immigrants and people of color. Their identity was lost under these ethnic bifurcations. They were never appropriately mentioned by their names.

This poem can be analyzed from the dimension of Latin Americans’ struggle against racism in order to present how the speaker (a Latino) is anguished by those (white people) who are well “guarded,” “praised,” and “admired.” He feels dislocated, and therefore, establishes his identity as an unwanted “ugly weed” that is neglected by everyone, yet is “strong and free” like an “eagle.” The feeling of Latinos being neglected and treated as outsiders in the US can be strongly observed in the voice of the speaker.

Herd Mentality

This poem shows how the “flowers” stand for the people who act the same way as people around them, often ignoring their cognition and inner instincts. This demonstrates the herd mentality or pack mentality, whereby just like sheep following the flock blindly, people also follow the mob mindlessly. The speaker describes the “flowers” harnessed to a pot as intrinsically weak people lacking the power to fight for their individuality. They grow in “clusters” and form the majority of society, thereby losing their own identities. In deciding to be an “ugly weed,” the speaker puts forward his inner drive to be a strong and independent individual. He separates himself from all the outside influences and creates an identity of his own.

Tone & Mood

The speaker of “Identity” uses the first-person point of view to convey his personal thoughts and opinions. The entire text is written from the perspective of the speaker which also makes it a subjective poem. In a firm and defiant tone, the speaker says, “Let them be as flowers” and “I’d rather be tall, ugly weed.” It seems the speaker is confident about his decision to be a weed. In the later lines, the attitude of the speaker is serious, disapproving, and partly anguished.

The phraseology, “watered, fed, guarded, admired,” “praised, handled, and plucked,” and “sweet, fragrant lilac” reflects his annoyance, irritation, and contempt toward the conformists. The speaker accentuates his deep desire of being “strong and free” like an “ugly weed” than to be a “pleasant-smelling flower” that is admired yet “plucked/ by greedy, human hands.” While reading the poem, it seems the speaker uncontrollably expresses negative feelings toward the people he disapproves of. However, in expressing his disdain, he exaggerates a bit, which creates a humorous and light mood in the poem.

Historical Context

Julio Noboa Polanco wrote the poem “Identity,” his only popular poem, in the eighth grade after a heart-aching break-up with his girlfriend. Polanco’s father Julio Noboa Gonzalez and his high-school English teacher at Lane Technical High School were his prime inspirations to start writing poetry at a young age. “Identity” perhaps is his only published poem. It was written in Spanish under the title “Identidad” and appeared in the 1977 winter issue of Revista Chicano-Riqueña, the first national magazine of US Hispanic literature. Later, Polanco rendered the poem in English. It became one of the most anthologized and highly admired poems in the 21st-century.

Questions and Answers

What is “Identity” by Julio Noboa Polanco about?

The central idea of “Identity” by Julio Noboa Polanco is freedom through individualism. The speaker of the poem distinguishes between individuality and conformity by drawing a contrast between two kinds of plants: weeds and flowers. The images of these plants are metaphors for two kinds of people in society: one group blindly nodding to the herd and the other, though in minority, carving a unique path of their own.

What does the poem “Identity” by Julio Noboa Polanco mean?

In “Identity,” Polanco shows the bitter reality of society, where those who oblige the societal and cultural norms are cared for like beautiful “flowers,” while those who challenge them and try to establish their own identities are “shunned” like “ugly” weeds. However, the truth is that those flowers may look attractive and smell pleasant, yet they are actually confined to the cage of a pot, completely losing their uniqueness and becoming like every other flower in a bunch. They can be plucked anytime “by greedy, human hands,” which shows that they lack an identity of their own. In wishing to be an “ugly weed,” the speaker goes against the convention to establish an identity of his own. The weeds might be undesirable, but the speaker feels that they stand tall confidently and are independent.

Why is the poem’s title “Identity”?

The term “identity” means the characteristics that determine who or what a person is. The qualities that make a person unique from the rest form their identity. In this poem, the speaker describes how he wants to live and grow. By being like a “weed,” a symbol of freedom and ingenuity, he tries to forge a unique identity of his own. That is why Polanco uses the title “Identity.”

How does the poem “Identity” relate to life?

Julio Noboa’s poem “Identity” is all about life and growing up. Though the main idea of the poem is cultivating an identity of one’s own, it relates to life in general. The speaker of this piece talks about living life freely, independently, and carelessly. When one has the freedom to grow the way they want, their life turns out to be only theirs. If one needs help in each step of life, they lose control over their lives. They live a life owed by their caregivers.

What is the tone of “Identity” by Julio Noboa Polanco?

The tone of “Identity” is strong, defiant, and nonconformist. Polanco writes the poem with a subjective attitude, stressing his desire to grow freely, without anyone’s scrutiny and guidance.

What is the mood of the poem “Identity” by Julio Noboa Polanco? 

The speaker shows his deep-felt emotions of disdain and anguish towards those who are conformists like the “pleasant-smelling flower” stuck within a “pot of dirt.” He celebrates his decision to be a “tall, ugly weed” than to be “fragrant lilac.” In some other points, it looks like he is a bit annoyed at people who are “guarded,” “admired” and “praised.”

What is the theme of “Identity” by Julio Noboa Polanco?

The most important themes of “Identity” include individuality versus conformity, freedom versus confinement, individualism, herd mentality, and growing up.

What type of poem is “Identity” by Julio Noboa Polanco?

“Identity” is a free-verse lyric poem without any regular rhyme or meter. It is written from the point of view of a first-person speaker. The entire text comprises five stanzas.

What is the extended metaphor in “Identity”?

In this poem, the “weed” is an extended metaphor for the speaker’s nonconformist self and the “flower” is an extended metaphor for the people who blindly follow the herd.

What does the “eagle” symbolize in the poem “Identity”?

In the line, “I’d rather be a tall, ugly weed,/ clinging on cliffs, like an eagle,” the speaker hyperbolically compares the freedom associated with the “weed” to that of an eagle. Therefore, the eagle is the symbol of ultimate liberty.

What does “To have broken through the surface of stone” mean?

This line projects the image of a weed raising its sturdy shoot from beneath the stone crevices. The “surface of stone” symbolizes a hostile environment that is not ideal for growing up. No matter how hard it is to grow in such an environment, the speaker finds the experience more rewarding. It is better to grow up alone and struggle than to grow up with someone else’s help.

What figurative language is “Let them be as flowers”?

In “Let them be as flowers,” Polanco uses a simile. The comparison is made between flowers and people with a herd mentality.

What are the similes in the poem “Identity”?

Readers can find the use of simile in “Let them be as flowers” and “clinging on cliffs, like an eagle.”

Who is the speaker of “Identity” by Julio Noboa Polanco?

The speaker of “Identity” is none other than the poet Julio Noboa Polanco himself. His persona is a nonconformist who wishes to grow like a weed rather than being nurtured like a garden flower.

Why does the speaker of the poem repeat the phrase “I’d rather”?

The speaker of the poem repeats the phrase “I’d rather” four times in the poem in order to keep emphasizing the happiness that lies in being free and independent, unlike others.


Similar Poems about Identity

  • Identity Card” by Mahmoud Darwish — In this poem, an angry Arab describes how his family was driven from their home without any just cause.
  • Song of Myself, 52” by Walt Whitman — This poem spans from being about the concept of independent life to the immortality existing in nature.
  • An Introduction” by Kamala Das — In this signature piece, Das declares who she is and how she wants to lead her life.
  • Who Understands Me but Me” by Jimmy Santiago Baca — This piece is all about the experiences, no matter how bad they are, that make us who we are.


External Resources

  • Check Out For The Americas: Encounters with Unitarian Universalist Values by Julio Noboa (2022) — This collection of essays written by Julio Noboa explores the issues related to history, politics, religion, peace, and justice from the liberal Unitarian Universalist perspective.
  • The Poem Aloud — Listen to this reading of Julio Noboa’s poem with visual illustrations.
  • Meet Dr. Julio Noboa Polanco — Explore the author’s profile.
  • How Latino Identity Is Shunned — In this article, Polanco strongly argues against the official segmentation of Latinos as “immigrants” or “people of color.”
  • Puerto Rico Rises! — Read Polanco’s view on the colonial treatment of Puerto Rico and why he takes pride in his Puerto Rican identity.
  • Leaving Latinos Out — Explore Polanco’s dissertation aimed at investigating the factors related to the teaching of US history that leave Latinos out from the overall narrative.

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