Gary Soto's poem "Oranges" first appeared in his fifth collection of poetry, Black Hair, in 1985. The poem appeared a few years later in a collection of poetry geared towards young writers, A Fire in My Hands, in 1991. This collection of poetry takes its title from the last line of "Oranges," when the young speaker is looking at an orange in his hands and it reminds him of a fire. It was published for a third time in 1995 in New and Selected Poems, which was a National Book Award Finalist.
"Oranges" tells the story of a young boy who is going on a walk with a girl for the very first time. He brings with him two oranges but he and the girl also go to a store where she picks out a piece of candy that costs 10 cents. The speaker only has a nickel in his pocket, so he wordlessly passes the shopkeeper his nickel and one of his oranges. Without a word, the shopkeeper accepts the young boy's payment, and the boy and girl continue their walk. The poem is characterized by sparse, simple language. It is a relatively short poem—there are 55 lines, but each line is very short. We will analyze the rhetorical tools that Soto uses to bring this poem to life in other sections of the guide.
"Oranges" is widely recognized as the most anthologized poem in contemporary literature. One of the explanations for why "Oranges" is so widely loved is because Soto inserts many different layers of meaning into this seemingly simple poem. First, it tells the story of first love—a universal theme—that is tinged by the melancholy of bygone youth. Within this relationship, however, we see a tension borne by economic class and gender roles which complicates their interaction. Second, Soto inserts commentary about money and community in the poem—the shopkeeper could have very well sent the speaker away when she notices that he does not have enough money to pay for the girl's candy. Instead, she accepts his unorthodox payment in a moment of true kindness and generosity. In fact, many readers find themselves drawn to the relationship between the speaker and the shopkeeper, noting that it represents a kind of real human connection that seems to be absent between the speaker and the girl. What makes "Oranges" so masterful is that these meanings are contained within the poem for readers who wants to find them, but at the same time, readers who simply want to enjoy the short account of young love may do so. Despite the simplicity of its language, it can be read in many different ways. Turn to the Summary and Analysis section of this guide to learn about some of the prevailing interpretations of "Oranges" as well as the figurative tools that Soto uses to create meaning in this poem.
By the time "Oranges" was first published in 1985, Soto was already a well-known poet. He has already been frequently published in magazines with national circulations and had already been anthologized in several poetry anthologies. While reviews of "Oranges" the poem are hard to find, it is evident that Black Hair was well-received by critics and readers of poetry alike. For example, Tim D'Evelyn wrote in a 1985 review of Black Hair for the Christian Science Monitor that "Soto deserves attention" as a result of his newest collection. D'Evelyn continues, "His extremely plain style keeps him honest. But I'm pretty sure he won't take praise if it is offered to him as a representative Chicano poet. . . Somehow Gary Soto has become not an important Chicano poet but an important American poet." When "Oranges" was published again in A Fire in My Hands, critics praised the poetry collection for its accessibility for young readers. Barbara Chatton wrote in the School Library Journal (1992) that Soto's writing "provides gentle encouragement" to young readers. Several years later, Heather M. Lisowski wrote in 2008 that the book "demonstrates the genesis of a poem as well as the compelling universality of the human experience."
As you read "Oranges," take note of what catches your attention. The language is sparse, but there are moments of great beauty hidden within it. Which words, line breaks, sounds, or images compel you to take a closer look? What do you believe is the overall message of the poem? What did you learn from reading it?