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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Gary Soto
(b. 1952)

Gary Soto was born in Fresno, California, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the world’s richest agricultural regions. Raised in a working-class family, Soto attended parochial and public schools before enrolling in Fresno State College, intending to study geography and urban planning. His interests soon shifted to literature, however, especially after studying with the prominent poet Philip Levine. Soto published his first poem in 1973 in the Iowa Review as a college senior. After graduation, he entered the creative writing program at the University of California, Irvine and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in 1976. Soto then resided briefly in Mexico. His first book of poetry, The Elements of San Joaquin, appeared in 1977 to much critical acclaim. That same year, Soto began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley where he remains. After four volumes of poetry, Soto has more recently published three collections of autobiographical sketches and essays. He is the winner of various prestigious prizes including a Guggenheim fellowship and the Academy of American Poets Award.

Like much contemporary American verse, Soto’s poetry is largely autobiographical, recalling childhood and adolescent incidents, and delineating family experience. Soto possesses the skill of converting ordinary, even banal, events into poetic occasions; much of his power and appeal as a poet derives precisely from the accessibility and familiarity of his subjects: a grandmother’s courage, a youthful failure as an athlete, a father’s relationship with his curious, energetic daughter. Soto’s preference for clear, uncomplicated language and concrete images also enhances his work’s accessibility. In terms of technique, the most striking feature of Soto’s poetry is enjambment, the device of carrying meaning, without pause, from one line to the next.

Soto’s ethnic consciousness—his sense of himself as a Mexican American—animates much of his work without delimiting it. Soto moves easily between the United States and Mexico to find his settings, his themes, and his protagonists. He often focuses on peculiarly Mexican American issues and he frequently delineates, especially in poems recalling his childhood, the Mexican Americans’ sense of community. But Soto presents Mexican American experience and culture as they fit within a broader context of human events and values. It is fair to say that Soto’s largest concern as a poet is the plight of that segment of humanity that is exploited, ignored, unheard. Soto lifts his voice in their behalf; as he once wrote: “I believe in the culture of the poor.”

Raymund Paredes
University of California, Los Angeles

In the Heath Anthology
Braly Street (1977)
The Cellar (1978)
Mexicans Begin Jogging (1981)
Black Hair (1985)
Kearney Park (1985)

Other Works
The Elements of San Joaquin (1977)
The Tale of Sunlight (1978)
Where Sparrows Work Hard (1981)
Living Up the Street (1985)
Small Faces (1986)
Lesser Evils: Ten Quartets (1988)

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Gary Soto
Brief introduction to Soto including his major literary accomplishments and the text of How Things Work.

Gary Soto : An Annotated Bibliography
A comprehensive summary of Soto's works.

The Academy of American Poets
A biographical sketch, links and the text and an audio file of Soto's poem Mission Tire Factory, 1969.

The Official Gary Soto Website
A biography and information about Soto's current projects.

Secondary Sources