‘How Things Work’ is a moving poem by Gary Soto that attempts to explain how money moves between different people. The poem’s speaker theorizes and imagines alongside their daughter the way every transaction, in turn, funds the lives of others. In this way, the poem presents an optimistic view of the way people financially rely on one another, even if they don’t realize it.
Yet the speaker’s lack of confidence in knowing with certainty that this is how “it works” also adds to the poem’s undercurrent of tension that results from the ubiquitous dependence on money.
Explore How Things Work
‘How Things Work’ by Gary Soto reflects on how money controls every aspect of the speaker’s life while also illustrating an altruistic desire to pay what little they have forward.
‘How Things Work’ unfolds from the point of view of a speaker who perceives the world in terms of what is bought and exchanged. It opens with them describing the transactions of just a single day in their lives: “Today it’s going to cost us twenty dollars / To live.” As they list the various items purchased and the amount paid for each, the reader is given a glimpse into the daily necessities of the speaker’s family.
As the poem continues, the speaker gives a tip to a waitress, which they imagine will go to taking care of her child or cat. The speaker then addresses their daughter as they begin explaining their perception of how “it works.” They are referring to the way they assume money passes between people in society: the money you use to buy bread from the grocery store “helps others buy pencils, glue, / Tickets to a movie in which laughter / Is thrown into their faces.”
The speaker reiterates more examples of this altruistic exchange in which each person funds and supports the other without realization. This is how “things just keep going,” the speaker weakly affirms.
Structure and Form
‘How Things Work’ consists of a single stanza comprised of 19 lines. There is no definite meter or rhyme scheme, as the poem is written in free verse. This is seen in the poet’s varied use of language and the way that many of the lines come across as more conversational than poetic. This was a very intentional choice on his part and something that’s common within much of his verse.
‘How Things Work’ contains a handful of different literary devices used by Soto in writing their poem:
- Visual imagery: “Five for a softball. Four for a book, / A handful of ones for coffee and two sweet rolls, / Bus fare, rosin for your mother’s violin” (2-4); “You buy bread from a grocery, a bag of apples / From a fruit stand, and what coins / Are passed on helps others buy pencils, glue” (11-13); “If we buy a goldfish, someone tries on a hat. / If we buy crayons, someone walks home with a broom” (16-17).
- Simile: “The tip I left / For the waitress filters down / Like rain, wetting the new roots of a child” (5-7).
- Metaphor: “Tickets to a movie in which laughter / Is thrown into their faces” (14).
Today it’s going to cost us twenty dollars
To live. Five for a softball. Four for a book,
A handful of ones for coffee and two sweet rolls,
Bus fare, rosin for your mother’s violin.
In the opening lines of ‘How Things Work,’ the speaker describes their life (and the life of their family) as being solely sustained by the things they are able to purchase. “Today it’s going to cost us twenty dollars / To live” (1-2), they bleakly declare.
The preceding lines offer a variety of visual imagery that envision exactly what objects constitute those twenty precious dollars. They range from the practical — “Four for a book, / A handful of ones for coffee and two sweet rolls, / Bus fare” (2-4) — to the sentimental: “Five for a softball” (2) and a purchase of “rosin for your mother’s violin” (4).
We’re completing our task. The tip I left
For the waitress filters down
In this next sequence of lines from ‘How Things Work,’ the speaker turns their attention away from their own purchases to explore the journey of the money they give. They refer specifically to a tip that is left for a waitress (perhaps the one they ordered coffee and sweet rolls from) and the small hope it will trickle down to benefit a dependent in the woman’s life.
A simile compares the tip to rainwater that wets the “new roots of a child” (7) or, in lieu of children, a “belligerent cat” (8). The point is that part of the task the speaker mentions in the first line of this section of the poem involves not just buying what they need but also passing on that money to others.
As far as I can tell, daughter, it works like this:
You buy bread from a grocery, a bag of apples
The speaker expands on this altruistic view of transactions in these lines. They also begin to directly address their daughter, who has evidently been accompanying them on their daily errands. What follows is an attempt to explain how the speaker thinks “it works” (10).
Essentially, they view their transactions as not just benefitting themselves and their family but also the people they buy them from. It is not an exceptional amount at the individual level, but “what coins / Are passed on helps others buy pencils, glue, / Tickets to a movie in which laughter / Is thrown into their faces” (12-15). In other words, the money the speaker spends on their family inadvertently helps fund other people’s practical and sentimental purchases.
If we buy a goldfish, someone tries on a hat.
If we buy crayons, someone walks home with a broom.
The poem ‘How Things Work’ ends with the speaker reiterating a variety of ways that their purchases and scattered money might help others. “If we buy a goldfish, someone tries on a hat. / If we buy crayons, someone walks home with a broom” (16-17), they reason optimistically. The last two encompass much of the poem’s hopeful theme that people go on being able to live because of how we all financially rely on one another.
The poem’s theme is expressed through the speaker’s attempt to explain how money moves around and its perceived purpose. According to them, we buy things not just out of necessity but to help others do the same. Beneath all those transactions is an altruistic need to support other people.
The poet most likely wrote the poem as an expression of bittersweetness over the dominance of money in society. The speaker reflects on how they can measure their life in the amount they need to purchase to keep it afloat. But Soto doesn’t hold drearily on this fact and instead seeks to highlight how money still relies on the human element of exchange.
Money in the poem is treated as nothing more than a currency that is used to purchase goods and services. In a way, the poem tries to detach the fixation we have with money by urging us to focus instead on what is truly valued and bought with it.
The speaker is referring to their purchases, implying a sense of duty entangled with the necessity of buying what they need. But this is not a capitalistic urge to buy more for material sake. Instead, the speaker describes leaving a tip and how giving money is important in other people’s lives.
- ‘Money’ by Philip Larkin – this poem is far more critical about the systems that make us so dependent on money.
- ‘Fool’s Money Bags’ by Amy Lowell – this poem hones in on people’s misplaced devotion toward money.
- ‘The Complaints of Poverty’ by Nicholas James – this poem attempts to capture the difficulties that accompany poverty.