Luis Omar Salinas Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Luis Omar Salinas 1937–

American poet and editor.

The following entry provides an overview of Salinas's career through 1988.

Salinas is generally regarded as a distinguished figure in contemporary Chicano poetry. Described by critics as highly creative and evocative, his verse frequently employs surrealistic images and metaphors, and discusses such traditional themes as alienation, loneliness, death, and honor. As noted Chicano poet Gary Soto has written, "Salinas possesses a powerful imagination, a sensitivity toward the world, and an intuitive feel for handling language."

Biographical Information

Born in Robstown, Texas, Salinas emigrated with his family to Mexico at the age of three, and shortly after their arrival Salinas's mother died of tuberculosis. Salinas's father returned to Robstown and, saddled with bills related to his wife's sickness and death, sent his children to live with relatives who soon adopted them. Separated from his father and his younger sister, Salinas and his new family eventually moved to California. An excellent student—he learned to read and write at an early age—Salinas was fluent in English and became avidly interested in the adventure stories of American novelist Jack London. In high school, he became a practicing Catholic and was active in athletics. Serving in the United States Marines Reserves and attending Bakersfield City College, Salinas eventually reunited with his father and settled in Los Angeles. Beginning in 1958, he attended California State College, studying history, drama, and literature, but working full-time and attending college part-time proved too much for him and he soon suffered a mental breakdown. Diagnosed as schizophrenic—it has since been determined that he is manic-depressive—he was hospitalized for eleven months, during which time he attempted suicide; Salinas has noted that it was around this time that he also began writing poetry. Continuing to receive medical supervision, he returned to his studies in 1963, enrolling first at East Los Angeles Community College and, the following year, at California State University, Los Angeles. Coping with mental illness and the demands of various odd jobs, Salinas was hardly a model student and frequently missed or dropped out of classes. Inspired by the work of the Spanish poet Gustavo Adolfo Becquer, however, he eventually took a creative writing class taught by Henri Coulette. Relocating to the agricultural Fresno Valley with his father, Salinas began classes at Fresno State where he suffered additional nervous breakdowns. Despite the pressures of a workshop atmosphere, Salinas took several writing class-es, working under the direction of such renowned American poets as Philip Levine and Peter Everwine. At Fresno, Salinas was also asked to teach in the Ethnic Studies Department. That same year he published Crazy Gypsy (1970), a collection of verse that largely explores the painful sense of alienation and loneliness resulting from the death of a mother. Although Crazy Gypsy was rushed into production—early editions are full of spelling and grammatical errors—the volume was a commercial and critical success. Nevertheless, Salinas waited ten years to publish his second volume of verse, Afternoon of the Unreal (1980). He has since released Prelude to Darkness (1981), Darkness under the Trees/Walking behind the Spanish (1982), and The Sadness of Days (1987). He was awarded the Stanley Kunitz Award from Columbia Magazine in 1980 and continues to write and publish extensively in journals and anthologies. He is also the coeditor of From the Barrio (1973), an anthology of Chicano writings. A new collection of work, tentatively titled Sometime Mysteriously, awaits publication.

Major Works

Alternately characterized as romantic, political, dark, and brooding, Salinas's poetry addresses the chaotic nature of human existence or, as he puts it, "the strange fullness of the unreal." Replete with unusual and fascinating imagery similar to the surrealist poetry of Federico García Lorca, Míguel Hernández, César Vallejo, and Pablo Neruda, Salinas's verse—which is often marked by ambiguity and disjointed sentence structure—is considered both highly emotive and striking. For example, in "Sunday … Dig the Empty Sounds" from Crazy Gypsy, a frantic youngster searches for his mother amidst an array of such frightening symbols as "the blood of children and the clouds with mouths." Much of Salinas's poetry is distinguished by this focus on alienation and abandonment—feelings he associated with the death of his mother and his separation from his sister and father. For instance, in "Poem for Olivia," a piece dedicated to his mother that appears in Afternoon of the Unreal, he writes: "I didn't come to this world / to be frightened / yet your death sticks / in my stomach / and I must clean the kitchen / with my hands / and I wander on / into the night of leavened bread / and pursue truth / like a tube needing air." Salinas also explores the pain of unrequited love in such collections as Prelude to Darkness and Darkness under the Trees/Walking behind the Spanish. The latter, which is comprised of two separate collections, contains new and old work. In the first part of the volume, his focus is largely autobiographical and emphasizes such themes as love, insanity, and loneliness. The second portion of the book is more political in nature, honoring, in part, poets and anti-Fascist revolutionaries who were active in the Spanish Civil War. Politics is likewise central to several of the pieces in Crazy Gypsy—which includes protest chants Salinas wrote while at Fresno State and poems about Vietnam and the Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara—and to The Sadness of Days, which is also known for its focus on philosophical issues. In one poem from The Sadness of Days, he offers an analysis of the work of photographer Ansel Adams: "Grandeur is always the subject: shards / of sunlight splitting clouds; rubble of lost / boulders under a heaven of cliff face and cumuli; / a tiny cemetery—crosses like picket fences—/ near the ghostly town under the mountains / flooding with white, the moon above / like some Platonic ideal."

Critical Reception

Although Salinas's work has been well-received, it has engendered minimal critical commentary. Following the publication of Crazy Gypsy, reviewers initially focused on the social message of Salinas's poetry, largely ignoring its surrealist dimensions and influences. As Eliezar Risco Lozada and Guillermo Martinez wrote in the introduction to Crazy Gypsy: "There is a degree of surrealism in Omar's highly personalized juxtaposition of images. But we can't allow that superficial surrealism to distract us from the deeper reality of the poems." In recent years, however, scholars have asserted that the form and content of Salinas's work are inseparable, arguing that the poetry's distinctive features—economy of expression, syntactical ambiguity, and ingenious placement of symbols—have a specific thematic function. While some have faulted his verse as ungrammatical and poorly crafted, most have agreed that Salinas succeeds in creating a poetry that simultaneously defines and preserves the Chicano experience within an Anglo-American culture. Salinas, for his part, has stated that although his poetry contains abstract elements, his work remains grounded in the reality of the human condition, his family history, and his Chicano ancestry.