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By Ron McFarland


The Montréal Review, July 2023


Ego vero me minus diu senem esse mallem quam esse senem ante quam essem.
For myself, I had rather be an old man a somewhat shorter time than an old man before my time.

                --Cicero, De Senectute, “On Old Age” Trans. Evelyn S. Shuckburgh 1


With the publication of his first book of poems, The Elements of San Joaquin, in 1977 the 25-year-old Chicano poet who grew up in the barrios of Fresno, burst on the scene as a sort of Wunderkind, or perhaps more aptly niño maravilla. By the time he turned forty, he had produced another half dozen collections of poetry, four books of personal essays, and most notably for his future renown and prosperity six books intended for children or young adult readers. By his seventieth year (in 2022) the prolific Soto, no longer a boy-wonder, could claim sixteen books of poems intended for adult readers and four for young readers, three books of adult fiction, ten books of essays, and more than thirty books of fiction and nonfiction for children or YA readers.

While the title sequence of The Elements of San Joaquin has attracted deserved attention over the years, the concluding poem, “Braly Street,” which runs a little over ninety lines and concerns Soto’s visit to his former home sixteen years after it was bulldozed, might be regarded as a signature piece. Moreover, that poem exemplifies Rafael Pérez-Torres’s observation in Movements in Chicano Poetry that Soto’s poetry “evokes political discourses crossed at the site of the individual” (13). He has sustained his focus on the personal in both his poems and essays throughout his career, often moving into what one might call painful nostalgia, as in several essays from Living Up the Street (1985) to “New Neighborhood, Old Neighborhood” in Behavioral Medicine (2021). If looking backward is regarded as a sign of aging, then Gary Soto has been growing old since he was in his twenties. Has he, in non-Ciceronian fashion, gotten old before his time?2

“How much memory is enough?” he asks in the one-page flash nonfiction “M&Ms” from What Poets Are Like (2013), published the year he turned 61. Reflecting on one of his earliest memories, hoarding his M&Ms at age four, he proposes “If one cares about the mystery of childhood, as a good many poets do, then the well is amazingly deep” (39). But that positive take on memory does not appear to equate with a positive attitude toward aging, as the opening sentence of his preface to that book attests: “Aging poets are like cartons of milk just days away from expiration, when they become the curdled contents ready to be poured down the drain” (v). In that preface and elsewhere among the 71 micro essays that make up the small book, Soto laments paltry turnouts at his readings and rejections of his writing by obscure Midwest literary magazines. One suspects, however, that he is hyperbolizing. At the end of his prefatory essay he claims, “I’m a poet who feels like all the others—mostly ignored” (viii). The opening sentence of the next piece, “Aging Poet,” runs to comedy: “I cancelled my love for the dog when he yawned while I was reciting a poem” (1).

From the foregoing, then, one might presume Gary Soto, as he approaches senectitude, cannot identify with Cicero’s claim in his De Senectute (43 BC), “On Old Age,” that he has “wiped out all the disagreeables of old age” and “even made it luxurious and delightful.” Ut non modo omnis absterserit senectutis molestias, sed effecerit mollem etiam et iucundam senectutem (10). Adapting the persona of Cato the Elder, aka “the Censor” (234-149 BC) writing in his eighties, Cicero (then about 63) proceeds from the premise that “those who look for all happiness from within can never think anything bad which Nature makes inevitable.” Qui autem omnia bona a se ipsi petunt, eis nihil potest malum videri quod naturae necessitas afferat (12). Moderate or reasonable men, Cicero continues, “find old age tolerable enough,” while the irrational and churlish find “uneasiness in every time of life.” Moderati enim et nec difficiles nec inhumani sense tolerabilem senectutem agunt, importunitas autem et inhumanitas omni aetati molesta est (16).But then, one might object, when were poets ever accounted moderate or reasonable? Of the four reasons old age is considered “unhappy,” according to Cicero’s classic treatise, the one most relevant to Soto’s poems on the subject is that age “enfeebles the body.” Quod corpus faciat infirmius (24).

But unlike the old soldiers of the barracks ballad that General Douglas MacArthur cited in his 1951 address to Congress, old poets and writers do not usually “fade away.”3 The controversial Pound, for example, who died at 87 in 1972, apparently remained cantankerous in certain ways until the end, and it looks like Gary Soto will too, perhaps in spite of himself. In the title poem of his 2010 collection, Human Nature, he presents himself dismissively as “fifty something” and so “Myopic” that he mistakes a “a condom, an ugly sagging thing” for a “flower / On a bush and a sign of natural life” (63). While most of the poems in that book concern scenes from his boyhood and early twenties, in such others as “Jumper Cables” he presents himself as “An old guy with a full bladder / And no juice to rev it up” (50). At the end of “The Poet No Longer Thinks of Greatness, Just a Slender Space at Barnes & Noble,” Soto depicts himself appraising his work while scrubbing the floor under his writing desk where he finds candle “Drippings from the years when I swore / A poet needed fire, smoke in his nostrils, / Shadows moving on the wall to keep him scared” (74). To return to the preface of What Poets Are Like, speaking in the plural, he offers the “headier worry,” whether “many of our best poems have already been written” (v).

Before turning to a pair of Soto’s recent collections, Sudden Loss of Dignity (2013) and Downtime (2023),consider the familiar poetic defiance of age as expressed in Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which opens with the aging hero complaining of being “Match’d with an aged wife” and no longer serving in the field but stuck with a desk job back at headquarters (104). While conceding “We are not now that strength which in old days / Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are,” Ulysses insists “Old age has yet his honor and his toil” before concluding with a dash of bravado to the effect that he and his men remain “strong in will / To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” (105-106). Readers might object that in “Ulysses” Tennyson is celebrating no ordinary mortal, but an epic hero with possible DNA linking him to the gods. Nevertheless, one suspects the poem would garner some applause at a senior citizens’ center.

Or witness T.S. Eliot in “East Coker,” the second of his Four Quartets, published in 1942, the year he turned 54: “Old men ought to be explorers” (129). “As we grow older,” he wrote a few lines before that assertion, “The world becomes stranger.” And unlike old Gerontion of his 1920 Poems, “A dull head among windy spaces” (21), a “dry brain in a dry season” (23), Eliot urges in “East Coker” that “We must be still and still moving / Into another intensity.” Dylan Thomas is famously intense in his villanelle addressed to his father, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” where he alternates that with the other refrain line, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (208). At the end of one letter to his father sent from London, Ezra Pound writes in his playful frontier dialect, “Cheer up, ye ain’t dead yet.” He concludes, “And as Tourgeneff says, most everything else is curable” (21).4

In the seventh section of his essay on aging, Cicero encourages his readers: “Old men retain their intellects well enough, if only they keep their minds active and fully employed.” Manent ingenia senibus, modo permaneat studium et industria (30). Again, from the eleventh section of De Senectute (via the persona of the octogenarian Cato): “We must stand up against old age and make up for its drawbacks by taking pains. We must fight it as we should an illness.” Resistendum [… .] senectuti est eiusque vitia diligentia compensanda sunt, pugnandum tamquam contra morbum sic contra senectutem (44).To that end he advises moderate exercise and a sensible diet in terms similar to those familiar from the advice of modern fitness gurus. The now proverbial utterance of Juvenal applies here: “mens sana in corpore sano,” often translated as “a sound mind in a sound body.”

The preceding is not intended to propose that poets typically perform well in their later years. Ben Jonson’s late plays have been called his “dotages,” and few of Wordsworth’s even most ardent admirers celebrate his later efforts. Surely, the most notorious comment on Wordsworth’s later poems is that of Bertrand Russell: “In his youth, Wordsworth sympathized with the French Revolution, went to France, wrote good poetry and had a natural daughter. At this period, he was a bad man. Then he became good, abandoned his daughter, adopted correct principles and wrote bad poetry” (312). The poet’s biographers have admonished the philosopher, noting among other points that Wordsworth (1770-1850) supported his daughter Caroline by Annette Vallon for the rest of his life (he died at eighty). In any event, Russell’s attitude here more likely reflects a political rather than a literary judgment. Somewhat reluctantly Wordsworth accepted the laureateship at age 73 after Robert Southey’s death in 1843, but as biographer Hunter Davies notes, his “muse fell silent” (313). In his edition of the selected poems for the Oxford Authors series, Stephen Gill includes only seven poems Wordsworth wrote after he turned sixty against more than 150 composed before he turned forty.

On the other hand, William Butler Yeats’s finest poems, most readers and scholars would agree, are the products of his later years, published between The Wild Swans at Coole in 1919, the year he turned 54, and his death at age 73 in 1939. Yeats’s most memorable metaphors of aging occur in such poems as “Sailing to Byzantium” where he describes an “aged man” as a “paltry thing,” a scarecrow, “A tattered coat upon a stick” (193). How readers interpret that poem may vary, but in “Among School Children” he does not seem so hopeful about being gathered into “the artifice of eternity” as he was presumably in “Sailing to Byzantium.” On a more mundane level, it seems, visiting a Montessori school as “A sixty-year-old smiling public man” representing the new Irish Free State (Eire), he sees himself in rather quotidian fashion as “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow” (216). Between the metaphoric scarecrows of these poems, readers may detect something of a tonal and perhaps conceptual gap. An old man, for Yeats, might be “a paltry thing” or he might be a “comfortable” sort. One might deduce that in either case, he comes off as a scarecrow.

Gary Soto at age 61, the year Sudden Loss of Dignity appeared in 2013, claims his awareness of aging has transformed him, as the opening poem declares, into “A Changed Man”: “For me, it’s no longer dog-eat-dog. / I’m in my lounge chair, sweetened tea in my paw” (3). In these poems he greets the ravages of age with a mix of comedy and resentment. One might reflect on lessons learned in elementary chemistry classes regarding the difference between compounds and mixtures: the poems celebrate not a homogeneous but a heterogeneous state. In “Body Parts,” for instance, he bluntly states, “I have no strength.” But he follows that half-line with details of hair loss that are simultaneously serious and funny: “My hair once bounced / When I frolicked and now lays against my scalp, / Each sweaty follicle thinking, Am I next?” (13). In “Eyesight at Fifty-Nine” he complains he “can’t see” and “can’t hear,” and his legs are “thin as breadsticks.” “What’s next?” he asks. “My teeth smiling in a jam jar?” (21). This may not qualify as “gallows humor,” but it is legitimately “dark humor.”

And “Before My Doctor’s Appointment,” despite its broad humor in which Dr. Fong warns him against “the dangers of Eggs Benedict,” opens dismissively but darkly: “Death is no more than a whiny mosquito” (43). Later in that poem he sneers at Death, but only “when he’s not looking,” the pronoun in this case being intentionally ambiguous as it might apply as well to the doctor. In the concluding stanza, Soto confesses that fear is “a potent laxative” (44). As Soto presents it, old age happens somewhere between comedy and death.

The humor of self-deprecation has long been Gary Soto’s hallmark. In “On Schedule” he plays himself off as “No doer / No builder, no statesman” against a diverse cast of Borges, Jack London, Thomas Edison, the Medici, Pope Clement, and Genghis Khan. “I’m no one,” he writes, “Other than an old gent / Tying his shoe laces / At the end of the corner / A cricket of pain in his knee” (8-9). In “To Keep Going” he proclaims his intent “to do small things, / Like bring a spoonful of water to my potted cactus. / I may deface a sentence in my journal,” or he might, as he thinks of himself at “age sixty-one,” appear “unannounced in Sweden / Medals on my chest from battles / With the Spanish subjunctive” (11).

While nearly half of the 27 poems that comprise the first part of Sudden Loss of Dignity concern issues of aging, most of the 28 poems from the second part revolve around more distant memories, some of them like “All Better Now,” where he recalls himself as a six-year-old who thinks he can “make / Things better on the street,” that he can somehow “save others” but finds he cannot save his “beloved dog Blackie” (73). The poem’s title proves ironic: “Is my failure a checkmark on God’s clay tablet?” The poem “Family Gathering,” on the facing page, reflects on Christmas of 1963, when Soto was eleven, and it also proves ironic, assuming readers might anticipate from the title a Hallmark moment. His stepfather sprawls drunk in his recliner: “None of us will sing ‘Litle Drummer Boy.’ / None says grace, none gets nice gifts” (72). In the self-addressed second person voice of “On My Mother’s Front Lawn” Soto imagines himself there two decades removed from his boyhood interpreting steam on the kitchen window as “Steam from your mother’s anger— / She will always be mean” (75).

Soto has never not been preoccupied by his past and ongoing life story; hence, the title of the first chapter of Ron McFarland’s recent book, “Gary Soto Sings Himself,” with a nod to Walt Whitman. Soto’s first excursion into prose, the “narrative recollections” of Living Up the Street (1985), also signals his intent to return to his boyhood experiences in a blue-collar barrio of Fresno. With the poems of Black Hair, however, published the same year, he began in the second part to expand the environs of his poems, notably in the direction of recent events in his life, including the childhood of his daughter Mariko, who turned seven that year. The setting for the poems often shifts from Fresno to Berkeley, as in the satiric “Berkeley Dogs” from One Kind of Faith (2003). No longer living “up the street,” Soto moved his family to Berkeley in the late 1970s. Fresno and Braly Street, however, still appear frequently in his poems and prose.

And as his most recent full-length collection of poems will attest, moments from the past continue to come back at him. In “Six Degrees of Separation” from Downtime (2023) he shakes hands with the grandson of a wrestler who pinned him in short order in 1967, and a teenager asks him if it’s true that he dated her grandmother, then says “She’s dead you know” (4). In “Tracking” he returns to Fresno’s Chinatown to find it “changed utterly,” to pilfer a phrase from Yeats, and not necessarily for the better. The following poem, “Seeing Myself as a Stone,” opens at a site familiar to his readers over the years: “Maybe I was the last birth on Braly Street, / April 1952, pushed out and brown as a common stone” (23). Several times among the 47 poems that make up the book Soto reminds the reader of his birthyear and twice he mentions his age (71), most memorably perhaps when he visits a massage parlor where

            The masseuse did the Mashed Potatoes
            On my back, the Cha-Cha-Cha,
            The Locomotion, the Pony and the Twist,
            All the dance steps from the 1960s. (45)

The “pain and laughter” brought on by the massage and memories, notably of a beautiful girl he admired “in ninth grade English” prompt him to laugh “that my life / Was nearly over (thank God).” In the closing line he realizes in a surge of self-aimed Schadenfreude that the girl “Hated my guts.” The guise of self-loathing here may or may not qualify as “playful.”

Past and present also meet in poems like “Waistband,” where Soto recalls himself at age eleven with an eighteen-inch waist compared to his current measurement of thirty or thirty-two. “Fuck it!” he suddenly blurts, “I fork a third sausage, / Scoot potatoes onto a plate, pound the bottom / Of a nearly depleted ketchup bottle.” He adds onion, chili flakes, and Tabasco, then makes another leap: “How I would love to strangle the neighbor’s hen / And roast it lickety-split” (74). Old age, it would seem, gives him license to behave outrageously. But not always. “Memory and the Beauty of Blueberries” opens quietly: “Is this old age? The faucet drips, / The linoleum blisters when you walk on it.” Aging can mean the onset of confusion, but then he recovers: “They say blueberries improve memory. / If so, back up the truck, unload this fruit by the pallet” (70). In an odd way, Soto’s playful note on memory recalls Cicero’s observation in the seventh section of De Senectute when he mentions reading epitaphs on tombstones as a way of refreshing his memory of those who are deceased and adds, tongue-in-cheek, “Nor, in point of fact, have I ever heard of any old man forgetting where he had hidden his money.” Nec vero quemquam senem audivi oblatum, quo loco thesaurum obruisset” (30).

If you can’t laugh at yourself, Gary Soto seems to be saying in these two collections, especially in your supposedly golden years as your hair falls out and your hearing fails (several poems in the two books refer to his acquisition of hearing aids), you are doomed indeed. “I have a grasp on my limitations,” he writes in “Travel,” the opening poem, in which he lists mostly places he won’t go and things he won’t do. “And like Philip Larkin,” he says in the last lines, “I would love to go to China / If I could get back on the same day” (1).

Perhaps the best poem in Downtime is the last one in the book, “I Picture It,” where Soto imagines himself reduced to ashes and his “dear wife” carrying him not in a fine cremation urn but in a Ziplock bag, which she pulls from her purse, “Looks in, says, Goodbye, Gary, it was pretty fun…” (76). The noise of factories and trucks “like hell-bent rhinos” may remind readers familiar with the twenty collections of poems he has offered since The Elements of San Joaquin in 1977—including here books of poetry for children or young adult readers—that the setting is the Fresno barrio of his early boyhood years. One of his most familiar recurring symbols, a “cigar-shaped blimp,” putters overhead.5 As Caroline pours his ashes on the “sandy ground” amid “shards of broken bottles” where he once fought and played, his long dead cat Boots, who appears in several essays and poems, shows up “from the knee-high weeds” to act as a sort of playful psychopomp.

On the back cover, Soto tells of his ambitious project to write a hundred poems in that many days, even though he knew at least half would be destined for “the fireplace if not the angry teeth of our paper shredder,” but “the act of writing mattered—keep it going, I told myself, be like a beaver and chew on a pencil, put down some lines, don’t forsake the craft! This private project of mine was a reminder to myself that after five decades I remain a poet, a calling few can claim.” Of course, there are a few bits of gravel among the gems, and that may be (must be) said of nearly any collection of poems, stories, or essays. Gary Soto’s light certainly does not appear to be dying, and if it ever dims, he’s likely to continue responding with mingled outrage (or perhaps only annoyance) and laughter.

In the tenth section of his essay on aging, Cicero advises his readers against becoming old before their time, insisting that “active exercise” and “temperance” will help “preserve some part” of a man’s (or woman’s!) “former strength even in old age.” Potest igitur exercitatio et temperantia etiam in senectute conservare aliquid pristine roboris (42). And in the thirteenth section he reminds us that “although old age has to abstain from extravagant banquets, it is still capable of enjoying modest festivities.” Quamquam immoderatis epulis caret senectus, modicis tamen conviviis delectari potest (54). But in perhaps the most salient moment of his essay, Cicero writes that old age must assert itself and must “maintain its proper rights.” Ita enim senectus honesta est, si se isa defendit (46). Within the simultaneously humorous and serious passages of Gary Soto’s poems and prose on aging, that is what he does. And after all, in the concluding section of his essay, Cicero insists on “the fact that the wisest man ever dies with the greatest cheerfulness.” Quid quod sapientissimus quisque aequissimo animo moritur, stultissimus iniquissimo (94).


Ron McFarland is an emeritus professor of English at the University of Idaho (Moscow) where he taught for nearly 50 years. 


1 Although I have cited the Latin text from the generally available 1927 edition of the Loeb Classical Library, I have used Evelyn S. Shuckburgh’s translation from the Harvard Classics (1909-14) text because his version is reliable and preferable at times and because it is readily available online via bartleby.com.

2 For the record, I do not mean to suggest that Gary Soto is familiar with Cicero’s noted essay on aging.

3 When my brother-in-law retired after a long career in the Army that featured three deployments to the Middle East, the chorus at Joint Base Lewis-McChord sang the familiar lyrics of “Old Soldiers Never Die,” but concluded with lines unfamiliar to me: “Young soldiers wish they would, wish they would, wish they would, / Young soldiers wish they would, wish they’d fade away.” I’d like to think young poets are not so cruel even in jest.

4 The intentional misspelling of Turgenev is typical of Ezra Pound.

5 See McFarland 131-134.


Works Cited

Cicero. De Senectute (“On Old Age”). Trans. Evelyn S. Shuckburgh. Harvard Classics. P.F.
Collier, 1909-1914. https://www.bartleby.com/lit-hub/bibliography/cicero; De Senectute.
The Loeb Classical Library. William Heinemann, 1927.

Davies, Hunter. William Wordsworth: A Biography. Atheneum, 1980.

Eliot, T.S. The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. Harcourt, 1962.

McFarland, Ron. Gary Soto: A Career in Poetry and Prose. McFarland, 2022.

Pérez-Torres, Rafael. Movements in Chicano Poetry. Cambridge, 1995.

Pound, Ezra. The Letters of Ezra Pound. Ed. D.D. Paige. Harcourt, 1950.

Russell, Bertrand. “The Harm That Good Men Do,” Harper’s Magazine (October 1926).
            Cited in Edith C. Batho, The Later Wordsworth. Cambridge, 1933.

Soto, Gary. Downtime. Gunpowder Press, 2023.

---. Human Nature. Tupelo Press, 2010.

---. Sudden Loss of Dignity. Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2013.

---. What Poets Are Like. Sasquatch Books, 2013.

Tennyson, Alfred. The Poetical Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Thomas Y. Crowell, 1906.

Thomas, Dylan. The Poems of Dylan Thomas. New Directions, 1971.

Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Poems. Scribner, 1996.


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