Gary Soto Soto, Gary (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Gary Soto 1952-

American poet, memoirist, short story writer, essayist, and editor.

Soto is recognized as one of America's best Chicano writers. Incorporating his working-class background and Hispanic culture into his poetry and prose, he addresses such social issues as discrimination, violence, and poverty. Commentators maintain that Soto's ability to transcend solely personal and local concerns has established him as a major contemporary author.

Biographical Information

A third-generation Mexican American, Soto was born in Fresno, California, and raised in the San Joaquin Valley where, as a child, he worked as a farm laborer. Attending Fresno City College, Soto initially majored in geography before transferring to Fresno State, now California State University, in the early 1970s. Inspired by Donald Allen and Robert Creeley's anthology The New American Poetry, 1945-60, Soto began taking workshops with American poet Philip Levine, whose writings often depict the harsh realities of urban life. During this time he met several other noted authors, including Ernest Trejo and Christopher Buckley. Soto graduated magna cum laude in 1974 and earned a M.F.A. from the University of California at Irvine, publishing his first poetry collection, The Elements of San Joaquin, in 1977. He has since received numerous awards and fellowships: the Academy of Poets Prize in 1975, the United States Award from the International Poetry Forum in 1976, and the 1985 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation for Living up the Street: Narrative Recollections. A finalist for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Award in 1979, he was also the first Chicano writer to be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Major Works

Much of Soto's poetry documents his upbringing and experiences as a Chicano in California's Central Valley. The Elements of San Joaquin, for example, focuses on Fresno in the 1950s, the agricultural community of San Joaquin, and the violence associated with barrio life. Furthermore, the harsh and desolate existence of farm life and the opportunities denied many Chicanos are recurring themes in his work. His short lines, detailed descriptions, and sentimental tone are characteristic of his poetry. In The Tale of Sunlight he utilizes a fictional narrator named Manuel Zaragosa to illustrate the vicissitudes of life, such as death, chance, and love. Where Sparrows Work Hard, Soto's next collection of poetry, again focuses on the landscape of poverty and despair. His 1990 collection, Who Will Know Us? explores the death of Soto's father and celebrates Americana, particularly the everyday rhythms of his native California.

Critical Reception

Central to Soto's poetry is the importance of memory and childhood recollections. Critics often praise his incorporation of autobiographical events into his work, creating vivid and evocative images. His emphasis on topical themes important to the Chicano community—such as the frustration over discrimination and limited opportunities and the appreciation of Hispanic history and culture—is also a focus of critical commentary. Despite his ethnic consciousness, Soto has been lauded for his ability to address private concerns as well as universal issues. Commentators attribute his ability to avoid strict polemicization of Chicano concerns to the humor often present in his writing.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

The Elements of San Joaquin 1977

The Tale of Sunlight 1978

Where Sparrows Work Hard 1981

Black Hair 1985

A Fire in My Hands 1990

Who Will Know Us? 1990

Home Course in Religion 1992

Neighborhood Odes 1992

Canto Familiar/Familiar Song 1994

New & Selected Poems 1995

Junior College: Poems 1997

Living Up the Street: Narrative Recollections (memoirs) 1985

Small Faces (essays) 1986

The Cat's Meow (juvenilia) 1987

Baseball in April (short stories) 1990

Lesser Evils: Ten Quartets (essays) 1990

Taking Sides (juvenilia) 1991

Pacific Crossing (juvenilia) 1992

The Skirt (juvenilia) 1992

Too Many Tamales (juvenilia) 1993

Jesse (novel) 1994

Boys at Work (juvenilia) 1995

Chato's Kitchen (juvenilia) 1995

Off and Running (juvenilia) 1996

Buried Onions (essays) 1997

Novio Boy (drama) 1997

Big Bushy Moustache (juvenilia) 1998

Petty Crimes (juvenilia) 1998

Nerdlandia (drama) 1999

Chato and the Party Animals (juvenilia) 2000

Peter Cooley (essay date 1979)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “I Can Hear You Now,” in Parnassus, Vol. 8, No. 1, Fall-Winter, 1979, pp. 297-311.

[In the following excerpt, Cooley praises the distinctive nature of Soto's verse.]

They keep coming back: the ring of a streetcar on Grand River Avenue, the flies that hummed by a light on the screen porch, the squeak of my grandfather's huge leather chair. Under the spell of Stanley Plumly and Gary Soto, these and other sensations of my own World War II childhood in Detroit have surfaced and re-surfaced in recent weeks. Set down here in discursive prose, they can't be heard by anyone except me. But when you read Out-of-the-Body Travel and The Elements of San Joaquin, your past, too, will swim up out of the lost worlds into which Stanley Plumly's and Gary Soto's memory books plunge us. …

Gary Soto's poetry carries less life-lived-through than Plumly's. The Elements of San Joaquin, winner of the United States Award of the International Poetry Forum, 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:

Young Mexicans
Went into ovens
And pulled out the pipes
Smeared black
With tar.
Far from home,
He had no place
To go. Nights
He slept in cars
Or behind warehouses
Like the machinery
That went on and on.

(from “San Fernando Road”)

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.

Because there are avenues
Of traffic lights, a phone book
Of brothers and lawyers,
Why should you think your purse
Will not be tugged from your arm
Or the screen door
Will remain latched
Against the man
Who hugs and kisses
His pillow
In the corridor of loneliness?

(from “After Tonight”)

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, as in the middle of “The Level at Which the Sky Begins.”

Through the streets
Cars fleeced in a light frost
Smoke lifting above the houses

A boy porching
The newspapers that would unfold like a towel
Over coffee over an egg
Going brown over the radio saying
It's 6:05 this is the music
of America

Where the young got up hungry
Roosters cleared
What was caught in their throats
All night

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. Levine and Williams (from whom Levine probably learned it) take off their gloves when they feel the reader needs a right hook with the bare hands. Think of “These things astonish me beyond words” in “Pastoral” or, in Levine, “Today I want to ask her / what she hoped to find / last night, I want to say, / I'm with you in this life” (“The Sky Falling”).

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:

That was the '50s
And Grandma in her '50s,
A face streaked
From cutting grapes
And boxing plums.
I remember her insides
Were washed of tapeworm,
Her arms swelled into knobs
Of small growths—
Her second son
Dropped from a ladder
And was dust.
And yet I do not know
The sorrows
That sent her praying
In the dark of a closet … 

(from “History”)


(The entire section is 1873 words.)

Carlos Zamora (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Where Sparrows Work So Hard by Gary Soto, in ABR, Vol. 4, No. 5, July-August, 1982, p. 11.

[In the following essay, Zamora offers a positive review of Where Sparrows Work So Hard.]

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: the gray dusks and dark nights that succeed upon...

(The entire section is 1000 words.)

Patricia de la Fuentes (essay date 1983)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ambiguity in the Poetry of Gary Soto,” in Revista Chicano-Riqueña, Vol. XI, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 34-9.

[In the following essay, de la Fuentes explores Soto's use of ambiguity as a poetic device.]

Although Aristotle was “inclined to consider all ambiguity as a perversion or failing of language instead of its natural and valuable quality,”1 by the Seventeenth Century, the Spanish theorist and critic Baltasar Gracián firmly established, in his famous treatise “Agudeza y Arte del Ingenio,”2 the fundamental importance of ambiguity as a poetic device. More recently, the English critic William Empson further clarified the...

(The entire section is 2628 words.)

Patricia de la Fuentes (essay date 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Entropy in the Poetry of Gary Soto: The Dialectics of Violence,” in Revista de Temas Hispánicos, Vol. 5, No. 1, Autumn, 1987, pp. 111-20.

[In the following essay, de la Fuentes examines Soto's focus on entropy and deterioration in his poetry.]

In discussing the relationship between entropy and art, Rudolf Arnheim (1971) points out that “when the Second Law of Thermodynamics began to enter the public consciousness a century or so ago, it suggested an apocalyptic vision of the course of events on earth” by stating “that the entropy of the world strives towards a maximum, which amounted to saying that the energy of the universe, although constant in...

(The entire section is 2865 words.)

Patricia de la Fuentes (essay date 1989)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mutability and Stasis: Images of Time in Gary Soto's Black Hair,” in The Americas Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1989, pp. 100-07.

[In the following essay, de la Fuentes discusses Soto's treatment of time and his emphasis on death in Black Hair.]

In Feeling and Form, a theory of art developed from her Philosophy in a New Key, Susanne Langer defines the role of the poet in terms of how well he “uses discourse to create an illusion, a pure appearance, which is a non-discursive symbolic form.”1 Central to this theory is the distinction between the “actual” and the “virtual” experience:


(The entire section is 2602 words.)

Julian Olivares (essay date 1990)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Streets of Gary Soto,” in Latin American Literary Review, Vol. XVIII, No. 35, January-June, 1990, pp. 32-49.

[In the following essay, Olivares provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of Soto's poetry.]

In the poem “Chuy” from Gary Soto's Where Sparrows Work Hard (35), the speaker describes his protagonist in a cafe:

Chuy noted
On a napkin
—a street is only so long—
And stared outside
Where already the day
Had a dog drop
Limp as a dishtowel
And the old staggering
On a crutch
Of fierce heat.
“There is meaning
In that bus, those kids,”
He thought,
And turned the dime
In his coat pocket.

Here Chuy...

(The entire section is 6099 words.)

Gary Soto (essay date 1995)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Childhood Worries, Or Why I Became a Writer,” in The Iowa Review, Vol. 25, No. 2, Spring-Summer, 1995, pp. 105-15.

[In the following essay, Soto reminisces about childhood events later utilized in his verse.]

As a boy growing up in Fresno I knew that disease lurked just beneath the skin, that it was possible to wake in the morning unable to move your legs or arms or even your head, that stone on a pillow. Your eyeballs might still swim in their own liquids as they searched the ceiling, or beyond, toward heaven and whatever savage god did this to you. Frail and whimpering, you could lie in your rickety bed. You could hear the siren blast at the Sun-Maid...

(The entire section is 5039 words.)

Michael Tomasek Manson (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Poetry and Masculinity on the Anglo/Chicano Border: Gary Soto, Robert Frost, and Robert Hass,” in The Calvinist Roots of the Modern Era, edited by Aliki Barnstone, Michael Tomasek Manson, and Carol J. Singley, University Press of New England, 1997, pp. 263-80.

[In the following essay, Manson contends that Soto's poetry should be considered outside of the American poetic tradition, contrasting his work with that of Robert Hass and Robert Frost.]

The guy who pinned
Me was named Bloodworth, a meaningful name.
That night I asked Mom what our name meant in
She stirred crackling papas and said it meant Mexican.

—Gary Soto, “The...

(The entire section is 7791 words.)

Robin Ganz (essay date 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: “Gary Soto,” in Updating the Literary West, Texas Christian University Press, 1997, pp. 426-33.

[In the following essay, Ganz provides a brief overview of Soto's life and work.]

In the early 1950s Fresno, California, was an arid and grimy city of 91,000 inhabitants. Many were caught in an economic chokehold that relegated them to a lifetime of punishing labor in the cotton field, the orchard and vineyard or the small factory. African American, “Okie,” Chicano and Asian American families populated Fresno's blue-collar neighborhoods and by this time the racism of the thirties and forties had given way to a kind of mutual acceptance, born of the daily...

(The entire section is 2515 words.)