Gary Soto Essay - Soto, Gary (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Soto, Gary (Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Gary Soto 1952–

American poet.

Considered one of the most talented Chicano poets, Soto is consistently praised for his gripping depictions of poverty and desolation, especially among Mexican-Americans. Although his work is frequently autobiographical in theme and locale—Soto's childhood in California's San Joaquin Valley included experience as a migrant laborer—the strength of his poetry rests on its ability to transcend the particulars of the situations he depicts. Reviewing Soto's first collection, The Elements of San Joaquin (1977), Jerry Bradley notes that the characters "rise above the meanness of their appearance, not as unscarred ideologues or saints or rhetoricians, but as human—frail and impoverished—whose heritage is simply and redemptively the earth."

Critics often cite in Soto's writing the influence of Philip Levine, an established American poet associated with the "Fresno School" of poets who characteristically employ short, enjambed lines, clear, unencumbered diction, and an elliptical accumulation of concrete images. While some critics fault his detached narrative style as lacking power and true poetic rhythm, many praise Soto's tight linguistic control and contend that his suggestive understatements successfully induce the reader's sympathy and involvement. Soto's second and third volumes, The Tale of Sunlight (1978) and Where Sparrows Work Hard (1981), have further contributed to his growing reputation as an important contemporary poet.

Publishers Weekly

Soto's poems [in "The Tale of Sunlight"] are set in an abstract landscape of sun, wind, sky and river that seems alive to the emotional needs of his people. His poems are simple, idiomatic, rhythmic and notable for the strange interplay between images of desperation and transcendence. In a key lyric called "The Shepherd," for example, a pickled three-legged chicken intrudes on the perfectly Apollonian picture of a boy descending from the hills with a harp swung over his shoulder. There's an ambivalence here between worldly and spiritual values that distinguishes the poetry from protest or apology—so the more you look between the lines, the more you see.

A review of "The Tale of Sunlight," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 214, No. 6, August 7, 1978, p. 78.

Jerry Bradley

The biggest failure of many ethnic and minority-group writers is that their political viewpoints often turn them into moralizing zealots or righteous cultural revolutionaries…. Chicano poet Gary Soto, a former fieldhand in the San Joaquin Valley, manages to avoid such shortcomings in The Elements of San Joaquin and thereby establishes that he is considerably more than just a good ethnic writer; he is a good poet. (p. 73)

Soto's topics extend beyond the fields and farms into all aspects of migrant life in the valley—the charity hospitals, the barbershops, the streets and alleys—and he depicts them all in a lean, simple style. And although Soto is capable of mimicking the mannerisms of uneducated Chicanos in a straightforward, uncomplicated style, his verses are not unintellectual. His simplicity is merely a stylistic device, one appropriately suited to his seemingly primitive and occasionally bucolic subjects. Consequently his metaphors are drawn from poverty, work, and failure, but they are nonetheless evocative, enlightening, and haunting…. [Soto's] characters, much like his metaphors, are transcendent, Imaginatively they rise above the meanness of their appearance, not as unscarred ideologues or saints or rhetoricians, but as human—frail and impoverished—whose heritage is simply and redemptively the earth.

Jerry Bradley, in a review of "The Elements of San Joaquin," in Western American Literature, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring, 1979, pp. 73-4.

Jascha Kessler

I'm sure that one of the reasons we are always looking for a new poet is our expectation of some novelty, some word from a place we have not been before in our imagination. (p. 1)

[The poems of Gary Soto's The Tale of Sunlight] are not simply descriptions of the life of the poor Mexican-Americans on both sides of the border. They are far more ambitious than that, which is why I spoke of the poet as the imagination that integrates something new for us, something unknown. Not that poverty is unknown, but that this people's life in the cities of the Southwest, the fields and the factories in the U.S. and in Mexico, is not something the fantasy and the news of the media can ever offer, from the inside, from the experiences of a lifetime, as it were.

And Soto is a young poet who has quite a firm sense of how to use the language, and often brilliantly, because he wants to convey what he has heard, seen, touched and felt vividly, from the point of view of certain stereotypes in the villages and towns. The stereotype, used by the poet, becomes representative and typical, not something flat and banal. Prostitutes, drunks, barkeepers, and family figures, mothers, fathers and uncles, sisters and brothers, say, who stand for something in a still family-centered community. Being young and having seen much, Soto is both harsh and brutal, cynical, fatalistic and despairing … but he is also full of visions and dreams that he...

(The entire section is 534 words.)

Peter Cooley

[The Elements of San Joaquin] is a younger man's book; it isn't patronizing to say so. The poems lay down before us a period in the speaker's life which is only recently finished, the 1950's of his childhood. But Soto's first book is no nostalgic venture into "Happy Days." Soto is a Chicano, and probably the most important voice among the young Chicano poets because his poetry comes to us through poems, not propaganda in drag…. (p. 304)

A former student of Philip Levine, Soto shows stylistic affinities with what has been called "The Fresno School": short lines, a denuded vocabulary, an enumeration of small objects seen not as symbols but presences which build the speaker's situation. The single line is not of great interest in itself; in fact, it may sound "anti-poetic" to some ears. Soto has learned from Levine to enjamb a flat statement with another flat but raw one, exposing the soft underbelly—and the claws. (p. 305)

At times the poems talk to us by shifting from one foot to the other, as if in a hurry to be off somewhere; side by side, too, the enjambed lines may seem melodramatic or mannered. Worst of all, strong statements may assume a kind of equivalence…. Soto does not want to shut us out in protesting his condition and that of his brothers—one understands his need for a quiet insistence—but when the texture of a poem is reduced to the objects of everyday life and the poem sets image after image before us, a tremendous pressure is put on the poet to find exactly the appropriate correlative line after line. (pp. 305-06)

In most poems, though, Soto is convincing in giving us a situation which is some part of his lost world of San Joaquin. The speaker approaches his reconstruction with a genuine tenderness, the short lines suggesting tentative, halting evocations…. (p. 306)

Though both urban and rural, there is no great city/country topology at work in Soto's San Joaquin. The earth, in fact, is related in the title sequence to the enslavement of the speaker as a worker in the fields. This sequence implants us in the minute particulars of the worker's situation by drawing us down to the insects and plants which...

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Vicki Armour-Hileman

Following the tradition he established in his two previous books, Gary Soto makes the subject of Where Sparrows Work Hard the Chicano experience and the setting California…. The people are Mexican factory workers, or others whose lives become emblems of the Mexican-American experience. Many of the poems are narrative and reminiscent of Philip Levine's, particularly in the use of colloquial diction and short, enjambed lines. Soto also shares with Levine a surrealistic bent and much subject matter. It is difficult to read Soto's "Joey the Midget" without thinking of Levine's "The Midget."…

There are at least three types of poems in Where Sparrows Work Hard. The first is pure narrative...

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Carlos Zamora

In Where Sparrows Work Hard, the poet takes the reader on a journey of exploration through the subterranean, labyrinthine, infernal world of the human soul, where everything gives evidence of a cosmic devastation. It is not by chance that in the external world which is at once the setting of the poems and the symbolic analogue of that hell, one finds over and over again the images of ruination and perdition….

This is a profoundly elegiac poetry, in which everything appears condemned to pass away without possibility of ever achieving fruition. The fated abortion of man's being appears illustrated in the repeated depictions of his finiteness: his smallness and fragility vis-a-vis the forces of...

(The entire section is 616 words.)


In Gary Soto's The Elements of San Joaquin (1977) the world struggles to survive disintegrating forces, from natural, to social, to human, that grind on in cyclic fashion. While one line of energy seems bent on reducing the elements to stasis and nothingness—entropy—another tries to structure the elements into combinations of living units. Even the writing of the text is a struggle between the word and a silence that would confirm human isolation and social chaos. Yet there is no reassuring idealism or even optimism in Soto. He reduces things to bare elements, speaks of them coldly, as if from a distance. Yet this is not the clarity of objectivity. The metaphor for his life-vision can be found in "Field...

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[The essay from which this excerpt is taken was read, in a slightly different version, at the Louisiana Conference on Hispanic Languages and Literatures in Baton Rouge in February 1982.]

One of the principal characteristics of Soto's poetry is the apocalyptic vision it reflects of the universe. Recurring images of loss, disintegration, decadence, demolition, solitude, terror and death create a desolate landscape in which the voice of the narrator is that of a passive, impotent observer, helplessly caught up in the inexorable destruction of human ties. Within this seemingly hopeless, profoundly grey world of Soto's poems, however, occasional affirmative...

(The entire section is 792 words.)