How Things Work

Gary Soto

‘How Things Work’ by Gary Soto is a moving poem that envisions an optimistic perception of the way people support one another through financial altruism.

Gary Soto

Nationality: American

Gary Soto is an American poet with 30+ poetry collections.

His most famous poem is Oranges.' 

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: People fund one another's lives and happiness

Speaker: A parent speaking to their child

Emotions Evoked: Compassion, Faith, Gratitude

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

Gary Soto's poem offers a compelling perspective for understanding the way society is held tenuously together by financial transactions, yet it renders that point of view as hopeful with its intimate imagery of the daily purchases made by people.

‘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.


‘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.

Literary Devices

‘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).

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1-4

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).

Lines 5-9

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.

Lines 10-15

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.

Lines 16-19

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.


What is the theme of ‘How Things Work?

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.

Why did Gary Soto write ‘How Things Work?

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.

What does money symbolize in the poem?

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.

What is the “task” the speaker mentions they are completing?

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.

Similar Poems

Poetry+ Review Corner

How Things Work

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.
Gary Soto (poems)

Gary Soto

This poem by Gary Soto is indicative of the exceptional intimacy that often fills his verse. Here, the poet takes on the voice of a parent attempting to articulate a lofty understanding of the way the world essentially works. Through the use of precise and emotionally hefty imagery, he makes a poignant observation about the invisible bonds that bind us all together.
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20th Century

Soto is an important 20th century poet who has played an immense role in communicating and illustrating through verse the experiences of working-class Mexican-American families. Poetry of this period is often multifaceted, but one element that unites it is its deeply personal nature. This poem touches on the poverty the poet saw and experienced firsthand growing up in Fresno and expresses the essentialism of community
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Soto was born in Fresno, California, in the 1950s and would become renowned as both a poet and educator. His poems often focused on the experience of the Chicano community in his home state, offering insight into run-ins with racism and poverty. This poem is a great example of the care with which he brings to life such intimate and personal moments.
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Coming of Age

One of the minor themes found within this poem is akin to a coming of age. This stems from the speaker's attempts to explain the way things work to their daughter, which implies a belief that they are ready to learn about such practical matters. The goal of the poem is to teach and instill an understanding of the reliance we all place on one another.
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Dreams are another theme found within the poem, in the sense that each person has a desire that can only be funded with the help of a stranger's dollar. The speaker essentially makes the case that we buy out of necessity and, in turn, that money helps others fund their own purchases, be it a desire to buy a hat or go to the movies.
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The core theme of Soto's poem revolves around the speaker's perception of community when it comes to transactions. When the man and his daughter buy something or leave a tip, they do so in the hopes that the money will benefit the other person in some small way. The speaker imagines a kind of tangled web of money exchanging hands and funding other people's needs and dreams.
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Compassion is one of the more powerful emotions inspired within the poem. Although the speaker acknowledges that they make their purchases out of personal necessity, they also focus on how money might benefit someone else. Of course, this compassion is fueled by the speaker's great reliance on money and sense of poverty. They understand the desperation of stretching what little they have.
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An emotion found within the poem is faith, which comes in the form of the speaker's beliefs on how things work. It is a profound expression of optimism that reveals itself in their perception of the significance of everyday purchases. Others might just see mundane objects or food being bought, yet the speaker sees in them an empathy that holds everything and everyone together.
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Gratitude is a powerful emotion expressed within Soto's poem. One that arrives implicitly amongst the speaker's theory on how things work that they explain to their daughter. The poem serves as a reminder to be grateful for the financial support of a community, especially one stricken by poverty. It is this gratitude that the speaker evidently holds onto with optimism.
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Soto lists coffee alongside other things which require money in order to build up a portfolio of activities and commodities which require access to money to enjoy. Coffee is, for many, considered a necessity yet its price adds up almost without the knowledge of the person spending the money.
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Soto makes it clear throughout the poem that community is essential to the survival of individuals. Without such a community, the speaker would find it difficult to survive, and no doubt others would too. Plagued by poverty, the Chicano community the speaker describes only exists because of the exchange of money that self-sustains it.
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Daily Life

This poem offers a moving and vivid look at the daily life of the people in the community that Soto writes about, one that hones in and provides a catalog of their identities through the purchases they make. This perspective is a jarring but affecting means of examining the necessities that make up people's lives.
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Generosity is another core topic found within the poem. It is made clear through the speaker's observations that they believe the only thing keeping things going is other people's generosity. We buy things out of need, but when we spend money within a community, it also has the added benefit of uplifting and investing in the people who comprise it.
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Money appears to be the central topic of the poem. Soto offers a curiously optimistic view of transactions, one that chooses to see them as the compassionate funding of other people's lives. According to the speaker, things are held together not by money itself but by people's willingness to spend it on each other.
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Free Verse

This poem by Soto is free verse, as it doesn't contain a defined rhyme scheme or meter. This allows the poet to easily catalog the events that make up daily life for the speaker and their daughter with great detail and emotional clarity. Yet the poem still retains a certain cadence that is still perceptible when reading aloud.
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Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

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