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Three Poems to Pair with The Great Gatsby

Bring these poems along for the ride to West Egg

Have you ever wanted a few poems to pair with The Great Gatsby? Y’know, a few good, not-too-longish poems to work into a bell-ringer activity, if needed, or use as add-on texts to supplement literary analysis essays?

My junior English classes are reading The Great Gatsby to finish out the year. And it wasn’t on my initial plan.

We don’t have a class set of these books, after all.

However, after reading Chapter 1 as part of my First Chapter Friday ritual, which I’ve been doing all year btw, a few students expressed disappointment that we weren’t going to read the whole thing.

To capitalize on their engagement, which lags quite a bit lately, I stepped back from my original plan to extend “April’s National Poetry Month” focus with a Dickinson unit.

Instead, I reconsidered. Could I actually make Gatsby work in the short time left in the year?

So my wheels started turning. I looked at the calendar.

We just have time to do it, if I can get over my self-inflicted teacher-guilt that this will be a very abbreviated treatment of one of my favorite novels. This upcoming week, for example, we are going to listen to an excellent audio version narrated by Anthony Heald on Audible, while students take what I’m calling “hybrid sketchnotes.”

One of my students decorated her manila envelope that will hold all nine pages of her “hybrid sketchnotes” she is taking while listening to the audio of The Great Gatsby. My next post will show examples of these notes that are a blending of sketching directly on the text.

That’s a lot of listening and I realize that. That’s why I’m skimming through the chapters, looking for ways to make listening more interactive.

For example, I’m thinking of saying something like, “Okay, when you hear the word ‘hope,’ get up and move to the other side of the room.” It may not play out exactly like that, but I’m mainly wanting to keep them focused on the audio, especially during my fourth hour class, which happens just after they’ve returned from lunch and are full and rested.

But thankfully with Gatsby, the action is fast, the dialogue snappy, and the events fairly easy to follow.

So while I feel that this is one book that can handle a quick unit, I also know we’ll be caught short when it comes to the wealth of discussion and opportunities for in-depth conversations that the book will invariably bring up.

Side note: Yes, once again, I am teaching something for the first time. (Oh my gosh, will this never end?!?! Answer: Yes, it will… on May 18, to be exact.)

This book is old but comprehensive. I snatched it up for only $5 while out thrifting one day!

Anyway, I perused my super-old Norton Anthology of Poetry this morning (we have Mondays off) for poems to pair with the text.

These should work as quick bell-ringers to have students read before we listen to the audio and start sketchnoting.

Next year, when I have my class sets that I just requisitioned, we can use these poems in our literary analysis essays.

So, without further ado…

Here are those three poems to pair with The Great Gatsby:

  1. The World Is Too Much with Us by William Wordsworth
What would NYC have looked like in Gatsby’s era? | Photo by Anders Jildén on Unsplash

This one, with its “Getting and spending, we lay waster our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” parallels the heady elation of the Jazz Age. There are moments of introspection on man’s being “out of tune” with “everything” … humanity’s preoccupation with wealth detaches us from our innate connection with the natural world. You get the drift… it’s Wordsworth, and it’s delicious.

2. A Noiseless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman

Photo by YOGESH GOSAVI on Unsplash

I can envision using this awesome little number as a metaphor for Nick. I see Nick as “Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space, Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,” hoping to understand Gatsby’s hope and motivation for reuniting with Daisy.

However, let’s turn it around. How might it apply to Gatsby? Those lines that describe “A noiseless patient spider,… on a little promontory it stood isolated,… launching “filament, filament, filament, out of itself, Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them,” paint a picture of Gatsby as he refuses to relinquish hope to repeat the past, in hopes that “the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.” Hmmm… so many thoughts on this one and how it shows us the inner workings of Gatsby’s mind.

3. The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

This poem and its complex themes of alienation, modernity, disappointment, and aging echo throughout the novel. Guide students to find connections with these larger themes that permeate literature of the Modern Era.

You can find more literal connections in Prufrock beyond the larger themes, though. Three examples include: 1) the white flannels in the poem that Nick wore in the novel, 2) allusions to romantic hesitation, and 3) urban and sea imagery. It’s obvious that Eliot’s hallmark poem of modernity would make the ultimate poem to pair.

Updated 2/9/23: Please note that since this post originally published, I have created a handy-dandy slide presentation that’s FREE! Go to my FREE RESOURCES page and find it there. It’s a super easy poetry response activity where students draw the mind of J. Alfred Prufrock. Here are some examples from students:

The caveat to using Prufrock is that it will work best with a unit that is NOT abbreviated. So, for next year, this poem will be on my pairing list, but not this year when we just won’t have the time to delve deeply into it. Addendum: The year after this post was published, we spent two class periods studying this poem, doing some close reading in small groups, and creating the project pictured above. Don’t forget to get your FREE Prufrock project slide presentation here.

So there you have it: three poems to pair with The Great Gatsby, a time-honored student favorite. What poems do you use alongside Gatsby? Leave a comment below to let me know or use my Contact page.

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