Soto is one of the most important voices in Chicano literature. He has memorably portrayed the life, work, and joys of the Mexican American agricultural laborer. Furthermore, he has done this with great poetic skill. He has an eye for the telling image in his poetry and prose, and he has the ability to create startling and structurally effective metaphors. Each of his poems has a design. One aspect of that design is his frequent use of an ironic reversal to resolve the poetic structure. His style is concrete and rooted in the language of the fields and the barrio.
There are many significant themes in Soto’s poetry. One of the earliest and most persistent is his view of the natural world as a wasteland. Although he uses natural imagery, nature is never benign or pastoral. It is, instead, harsh and unrelenting. It scars those who are nakedly exposed to it from dawn to nightfall. A related theme is Soto’s refusal to yield to the temptation to evoke a transcendental view of nature. His heroes are obliterated from that world; they cannot and do not transcend it.
Soto does, however, modulate his bleak view of the human condition when he writes about childhood. That state is filled with a quest for knowledge and experience. In the poem “Chuy,” the young speaker may be naïve or mistaken in his idealized love; however, he does manage to pass through his experiences and gain some wisdom, and he does not give in to cynicism. In the later poems, Soto contrasts the bleak conditions of his childhood with the innocence and privilege of his own daughter. In “Small Town with One Street,” for example, he shows his daughter a young boy in Fresno whom he says is an image of himself as a child. The daughter is shocked to see that poor and troubled image of her apparently powerful father. Soto did not alter his pessimistic view of the world as he grew older and prospered. In “The Way Things Work,” the speaker inventories the expenses of the day and worries about meeting them. The culture of poverty cannot be overcome by relative affluence; it continues to mark Soto’s view of the world, as the wind and dirt marked the workers in the field.
Soto’s poetic style is marked by the use of short free-verse lines. There are seldom more than three stresses to a line, and the lines often run on, creating the effect of a rapid flow of images hurrying to reach a final resolving line. He uses occasional metaphors, but his primary poetic device is imagery. The poems are packed with images that follow one another, often creating a structural design. Because the poems deal with the Chicano experience in the field or in the street, the language is always concrete and dense in detail. Soto does not write many long poems; nearly all are short lyrics. If he does expand a poem, he does so by creating a longer poem that has many separate sections.
Soto uses irony consistently in his poems. He seems chary of ending a poem with a positive statement or image. The last few lines often reverse or sardonically comment on what went before. These ironic structures convey his bleak view of a world in which everything passes away, including any sign of the poor inhabitants. Soto is concerned not only with the fact of death but also with whether individuals can leave any sign of their presence on an indifferent universe.
Soto is the poet of the Chicano experience, but his view of that people is not hopeful. He shows their condition to be one of hard work with few rewards. There may be a few isolated moments of joy on the street or in the privacy of the home, but difficult economic conditions make such happiness short-lived. The one positive element in Soto’s poetry is his portrayal of his own family, which has escaped the confined and limiting world of manual labor Soto had experienced in Fresno. That family is also a composite, as Soto’s wife is Japanese American. The family scenes he creates are tender and hopeful.
Soto’s prose has many similarities with his poetry. His subject in his prose books is primarily childhood and adolescence. He does not, of course, use the formal devices of poetry in these books, but he does use the same concrete detail and imagery. He often uses the same ironic reversal in many of the short pieces that make up each book. The prose narratives do have more humor than the poems, and they tend to deal more fully with relationships within the Chicano community than the poems do.
The Elements of San Joaquin
First published: 1977
Type of work: Long poem
This work catalogs the fierce natural forces that make the lives of workers difficult and unfruitful.
The Elements of San Joaquin is a long poem divided into seven sections that together make up the “Elements” of this agricultural workers’ world. “Elements” is an interesting word choice, as it has connotations of scientific, objective discourse, while the poem is a direct personal statement. “Elements” may also refer to the four classical elements of the universe: earth, air, fire, and water.
The first section of the poem is titled “Field.” The field is described in harsh, naturalistic terms; forces of nature impose their presence and will upon the impoverished workers who work the field. One of these forces, the wind, “sprays dirt into my mouth/ The small, almost invisible scars/ On my hands.” The speaker is literally marked by these natural forces; this is not a pastoral communion but a painful union. In the second stanza, there are some positive suggestions, as the speaker’s pores “have taken in a seed of dirt of their own.” Yet the seed image is ironic because it is not a seed that will flower or produce anything that will sustain life.
The forces in the field continue making marks upon the speaker as they...
(The entire section is 2394 words.)