Gary Soto (b. 1952)
Contributing Editor: Raymund Paredes
Classroom Issues and Strategies
As a Chicano working-class poet, Soto sometimes uses figurative language that might be unfamiliar to and difficult for some readers. Occasionally, he uses a Spanish word or phrase. As a poet with a strong sense of kinship with people who are poor, neglected, and oppressed, Soto tries to create poetry out of ordinary working-class experience and images. All this is very different from typically bourgeois American poetry.
It is useful to connect Soto's work to contemporary events in Mexican-American experience. Reading a bit about Cesar Chavez and the California farm worker struggle places some of Soto's sympathies in context. General reading in Chicano (or Mexican-American) history would also be useful. It is also useful to consider Soto among other contemporary poets whose sensibilities were shaped by the post-1960s struggles to improve the circumstances of minority groups and the poor.
Urge students to try to see the world from the point of view of one of Soto's working-class Chicanos, perhaps a farm worker. From this perspective, one sees things very differently than from the point of view generally presented in American writing. For the tired, underpaid farm worker, nature is neither kind nor beautiful, as, for example, Thoreau would have us believe. Soto writes about the choking dust in the fields, the danger to the workers' very existence that the sun represents. Imagine a life without many creature comforts, imagine feelings of hunger, imagine the pain of knowing that for the affluent and comfortable, your life counts for very little.
Students are generally moved by Soto's vivid and honest presentation of personal experiences, his sympathy for the poor, and the accessibility of his work. They generally wish to know more about Mexican-American and Mexican cultures, more about the plight of farm workers and the urban poor.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Despite Soto's distinctiveness, he is very much a contemporary American poet. Like many of his peers, he writes largely in an autobiographical or confessional mode. As an intensively introspective poet, he seeks to maintain his connection to his Mexican heritage as it exists on both sides of the border. His work often focuses on the loss of a father at an early age, on the difficulties of adolescence (especially romantic feelings), and the urgency of family intimacy. On a broader level, Soto speaks passionately on behalf of tolerance and mutual respect while he denounces middle- and upper-class complacency and indifference to the poor.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Again, Soto is very much a contemporary American poet, writing autobiographically in free verse and using images that are drawn from ordinary experience and popular culture. His sympathies for the poor are very typical of contemporary writers from ethnic or underprivileged backgrounds. It is also important to note that some of Soto's poetry has been influenced by the "magical realism" of modern Latin American writing, especially Gabriel García-Márquez.
Although Soto is a Chicano poet in that his Mexican-American heritage is a key aspect of his literary sensibility, he nevertheless aims for a wider audience. He clearly wants a broad American audience to feel sympathies for his poetic characters and their circumstances. The product of a contemporary sensibility, Soto's poetry is topical and vital.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Again, as an autobiographical poet, Soto can be compared with such figures as Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Sylvia Plath. His working-class sensibility is reminiscent of James Wright and Philip Levine (who was Soto's teacher at California State University, Fresno). His celebration of certain Chicano values and denunciation of bigotry is comparable to that of other Chicano poets such as Lorna Dee Cervantes.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. Students might be asked to look for clues in his work as to ethnic background, economic status, and geographical setting.
Furthermore, they might be asked to consider certain formal qualities of his work: Where do Soto's images and symbols come from? Does Soto attempt to make his work accessible to ordinary readers?
2. Soto's work is fruitfully compared to other autobiographical poets (Lowell, Berryman, Plath) and to working-class poets such as Wright and Levine.
Soto's book The Tale of Sunlight (particularly its final section) might be studied for its elements of "magical realism."
Soto, of course, can be studied in connection to other Chicano poets such as Lorna Dee Cervantes and Umar Salinas
Probably the most useful general source of information on Soto (complete with various references) is the article on Soto in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 82, "Chicano Writers" (1989).