‘Oranges’ by Gary Soto is a narrative poem that tells a story about a young boy on his first day. His nerves are on full display, something that is quite easily accessible through the verse. This is helped through Soto’s use of imagery throughout the poem, something that all the best, most memorable poems make use of. In poetry, imagery is more than just painting a picture of something. It is about appealing to the reader’s senses and engaging their imagination. In an image-rich poem, readers will come across lines that require one to imagine smells, tastes, sounds, and feelings. For example, his depiction of the “Frost cracking / Beneath” his steps or these lines later on in the poem: “A few cars hissing past, / Fog hanging like old”.
Summary of Oranges
The poem is written in a narrative format. It follows the young boy from his walk to the girl’s house, to the drugstore, and outside again. The events are quite easy to follow due to Soto’s use of diction and syntax. The poem describes the young boy’s nerves, excitement and embarrassment over not being able to pay for the chocolate that his young date selected. But, luckily for him, the cashier accepted his nickel and his orange as payment. The poem ends with a reemphasis on the warmth that has been carried throughout the two stanzas.
You can read the full poem Oranges here.
Themes in Oranges
In ‘Oranges,’ Gary Soto engages with themes of youth, happiness, and memories. The speaker, who is looking back on this time in his life, is recalling with pleasure his first date. He was quite young, only twelve, and he was meeting up with a girl in the freezing cold, December weather. Despite this, his happiness and the warmth of the moment are conveyed through symbols of hope and life. These include the young girl’s smile, her makeup, the light at her home, and the oranges in his pocket. While the memories of the date are not entirely pleasurable (he was embarrassed at the store’s checkout) he does recall them fondly. The poem ends on a positive note as the two eat their chocolate and remaining orange outside, oblivious to the cold.
Structure and Form of Oranges
‘Oranges’ by Gary Soto is a two stanza poem that is separated into one set of forty-two lines and another of fourteen. The stanza break occurs between the main action inside the store and then outside. Soto chose to write this poem in free verse, meaning that the lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is a common technique in contemporary poetry and one that benefits the narrative structure of the poem. It allows Soto to tell this story without being weighed down by the requirements of rhyme and rhythm. It also helps the lines come across much more colloquially and sound as though they’re truly coming from a young narrator.
Literary Devices in Oranges
Soto makes use of several literary devices in ‘Oranges,’ these include but are not limited to examples of similes, enjambment, and alliteration. The first of these, a simile, can be seen found twice in ‘Oranges’. The first example is in the first stanza with the lines “I turned to the candies / Tiered like bleachers”. Here, Soto uses “like” to compare the way the candy is stacked on the shelf to bleachers.
Enjambment is a formal technique that’s concerned with the way that one line moves into the next. Phrases that do not use end-punctuation and continue into the next line are enjambed. For example, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza and three and four of the second stanza.
Alliteration is a kind of repetition that is concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “Beneath” and “breath” in line six of the first stanza and “hissing” and “hanging” in lines two and three of the second stanza.
Analysis of Oranges
The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
In the first lines of ‘Oranges,’ the speaker starts his description of his first date. He’s looking back on these events from a future place, one that allows him to see these moments with a little distance but still accurately depict them. He was twelve years old when he went on his first date. There are some interesting juxtapositions in these first lines as the boy sets out, excited and nervous for his first day, in the winter weather of December. He’s carrying two oranges in his jacket, a symbol of warmth and hope. He’s planning on walking with this unnamed girl.
There is an interesting emphasis on the phrase “then gone” in this stanza as well as if the speaker is seeking to draw attention to the fleeting nature of these moments, and perhaps even of love and relationships. The speaker remembers how he walked towards “Her house, the one whose / Porch light burned yellow”. The “yellow” of the light works in a similar way to the oranges in his pocket, it’s bright in the darkness of the winter day. The same can be said about her face “bright / With rouge,” or red makeup.
There are several examples of caesurae in these lines, as well as enjambment, that help Soto pace the poem and create pauses wherever he needed to.
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
The young boy takes the girl’s shoulder and directs her down the street. He remembers how they crossed a “used car lot and a line / Of newly planted trees”. (This is another good example of juxtaposition.) Finally, they make it to “a drugstore”. This is not the most romantic date, but for two barely teenagers, this was likely a fun outing. Outside the drugstore, they “were breathing”. The speaker notes this in order to relate it back his single breath before meeting up with his date. Now they’re breathing the cold air together.
There is a good simile in this section of the poem when the boy looks at the candy, “tiered like bleachers” on the shelf. He invites his date to pick something and her eyes light up and she starts to smile. He took note then, as he does now, of the small changes in her countenance. The boy is prepared to pay, but he only has a “nickel” in his pocket.
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
Very well what it was all
Unfortunately for the young man, the girl chooses chocolate, something that costs a dime, more than he has. When the two go up to the checkout, he knows that he doesn’t have enough money. So, in partial payment, he also gives the checkout lady one of his two oranges. He set the nickel and the orange “quietly on / The counter” as if worried that these two things might not be accepted. When he finally met the woman’s eyes, its clear that she’s very aware of his circumstances and is willing to allow him to get the chocolate with what he has.
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.
The first stanza ends and the second begins with the two leaving the store. Outside, there are only a few cars “hissing” through the street. It’s still cold, but the speaker focuses on the “Fog hanging like old / Coats between the trees”. This is the second simile in the poem and one that is quite evocative. It helps to set the scene. Now, the girl is his, he takes her hand “for two blocks” until she unwraps her chocolate and he peels his orange. It, like this moment, was bright against / The gray of December”. It was so bright, in fact, that he thinks from a distance it looks like he was “making a fire in [his] hands”. This is meant to relate back to his overall warmth, despite the cold weather. It was an uplifting and heartwarming date that he still remembers.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading ‘To the Boys Who May One Day Date My Daughter’ by Jesse Parent and ‘1st Date She and 1st Date He’ by Wendy Cope. Both of these poems are about dating and are filled with humorous moments that are incredibly relatable. The first, by Parent, is a declaration of a father’s love and the lengths he’d go to protect his daughter. Any boy she dates don’t stand a chance against him. The latter, ‘1st Date She and 1st Date He,’ can be read as two interconnected poems that provide the reader with different perspectives on one date. One from the woman’s point of view and one from the man’s.