I first discovered Gary Soto this past school year in the glossary of our fat ninth grade English textbook. The glossary references his poem “Oranges” as a study in connotation, a concept I was about to teach. After teaching the poem to four different classes, I was ready for more Soto, so I bought Soto’s New and Selected Poems, now ten years old.
Soto is a study in connotation, in getting a lot out of a little. His poems, especially his early ones, glint with the scraps of language that get brushed off of many poets’ workbenches. Consider “Copper,” in which Leonard and the poet are walking “dirt alleys after mass / collecting copper.” In the first stanza, copper scraps are a means to a meager income. In the second and last stanza, copper becomes a guiding light, its “soft glow” contrasting with the white glow of Leonard’s and his “bloated” bodies before a snowy TV on a snowy day. Collecting copper becomes an ironic means for Leonard and the poet to recover their dignity. Using sparse images, Soto moves deftly from connotation to theme in almost no time.
Soto’s early poems often sketch his poor childhood in a family of Mexican migrant workers in California during the 1950’s and 60’s. His subject matter broadens in the subsequent volumes represented in New and Selected Poems – shopping for his wife, speaking to his old age relatives, living in the 1960’s, instructing his daughter on social issues.
When Soto talks to his daughter in “Failing in the Presence of Ants,” his daughter and he are examining ants. Soto examines issues and ideas with pieces of things – images and the barest metaphors – and ants are among Soto’s recurring image-characters. Soto suggests that selfless ants “are more human than we are,” pointing out that “[w]e live for our bellies… / And many people, whole countries, / May go under because we desire TV / And chilled drinks, clothes / That hang well on our bodies — / Desire sofas and angled lamps, / Hair the sea may envy / On a slow day.” The scraps always add up to something, just like the copper Leonard and the poet collect during the warmer months.
Soto’s diction is always simple, befitting his reliance on imagery. He seems to prefer “the words / A sparrow could bicker / Over, a dog could make sense of / Even behind a closed door,” as he says to his love in “Between Words.” That poem contains a few of his most beautiful lines about words, and perhaps about poetry:
The moon is between clouds,
And we’re between words
That could deepen
But never arrive.
Like this walk. We could go
Under trees and moons,
With the stars tearing
Like mouths in the night sky,
And we’ll never arrive.
As Soto gets older, his lines lengthen like the light streaking in his poems near sunset. He sort of softens; images don’t have the same visceral impact, and he gravitates more to the world of ideas than to the world of experience his earlier poetry usually inhabits. This shift has something to do with the overall shift in his subject matter from childhood to adulthood. His newer, softer poetry is perhaps as good as his older poetry, except for some of the newer poems in which his images sometimes tend to jumble up and compete with one another more than they might. Overall, his new poetry is just softer, like the curves we tend to cover ourselves in as we age.