In his youth, he worked in the fields of the San Joaquin Valley. Soto's father died in 1957, when he was five years old. As his family had to struggle to find work, he had little time or encouragement in his studies, hence, he was not a good student. Soto notes that in spite of his early academic record, while at high school he found an interest in poetry through writers such as Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Jules Verne, Robert Frost and Thornton Wilder.
His first collection of poems, The Elements of San Joaquin, won the United States Award of the International Poetry Forum in 1976 and was published in 1977. The New York Times Book Review honored the book by reprinting six of the poems. His second book of poems, The Tale of Sunlight (1978), was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, he has published numerous books of poetry, including A Simple Plan (Chronicle Books, 2007); One Kind of Faith (2003); and Junior College (1997).
A Red Palm
A Red PalmYou're in this dream of cotton plants.
You raise a hoe, swing, and the first weeds
Fall with a sigh. You take another step,
Chop, and the sigh comes again,
Until you yourself are breathing that way
With each step, a sigh that will follow you into town.
That's hours later. The sun is a red blister
Coming up in your palm. Your back is strong,
Young, not yet the broken chair
In an abandoned school of dry spiders.
Dust settles on your forehead, dirt
Smiles under each fingernail.
You chop, step, and by the end of the first row,
You can buy one splendid fish for wife
And three sons. Another row, another fish,
Until you have enough and move on to milk,
Bread, meat. Ten hours and the cupboards creak.
You can rest in the back yard under a tree.
Your hands twitch on your lap,
Not unlike the fish on a pier or the bottom
Of a boat. You drink iced tea. The minutes jerk
It's dusk, now night,
And the lights in your home are on.
That costs money, yellow light
In the kitchen. That's thirty steps,
You say to your hands,
Now shaped into binoculars.
You could raise them to your eyes:
You were a fool in school, now look at you.
You're a giant among cotton plants.
Now you see your oldest boy, also running.
Papa, he says, it's time to come in.
You pull him into your lap
And ask, What's forty times nine?
He knows as well as you, and you smile.
The wind makes peace with the trees,
The stars strike themselves in the dark.
You get up and walk with the sigh of cotton plants.
You go to sleep with a red sun on your palm,
The sore light you see when you first stir in bed.