Editor’s Note: In honor of National Poetry Month, we’re opening this month’s patron-exclusive book club to the public. We hope you enjoy The Great Gatsby and poetry!
Quick: what’s the first thing you picture when I say, The Great Gatsby? Even people who have never read the book or seen the movie probably get a mental glimpse of sparkly revelers dancing the Charleston, downing drinks, and generally whooping it up on the grounds of a swanky 1920s paradise. The Gatsby party is a whole iconic mood, though as you probably caught on during your reading of chapters 3 and 4, the reality under the festive exterior is not so playful.
In chapter 4, we learn much more about Gatsby. The generous party host is rumored to be bootlegger by young ladies “moving somewhere between his cocktails and flowers.” (It’s made clear throughout the novel that even though people love taking advantage of Gatsby’s free parties, they rarely bother getting to know him.) Then Nick finds out even more by taking a “disconcerting ride” with Gatsby himself.
The afternoon is, indeed, bizarre. Gatsby communicates in an awkwardly inconsistent way that makes Nick ping pong between belief and unbelief. Can he trust what Gatsby has to say about his background, education, military career, and money? Can we? And is Mr. Wolfsheim, a man Gatsby tells us fixed the 1919 World Series, really wearing cuff buttons made out of human teeth? (Yup.) We learn later, through haughty Jordan Baker, that Daisy has quite an interesting history with both Tom and Gatsby. Then the bombshell: Gatsby wants Nick to invite both him and Daisy over at the same time.
I started by summarizing chapter 4 so I could make a really cool point about chapter 3. (Working backwards can be fun.) Even though 4 delivers quite a few confusing and disconcerting details directly, 3 hints at these themes through Fitzgerald’s expert use of language that operates on several levels.
Take a look at these things-aren’t-as-they-seem moments from the party in chapter 3:
“enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names”
“the sea-change of faces and voices and color under the constantly changing light”
“Jordan Baker. . .looking with contemptuous interest down into the garden”
“the premature moon, produced like the supper, no doubt, out of a caterer’s basket”
“Absolutely real—[the books]—have pages and everything”
“superior couples holding each other torturously, fashionably”
“the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental, and profound”
“whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd”
“I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy”
“. . .she wore all her evening dress, all her dresses, like sports clothes”
“. . .during the course of her song she had decided, ineptly, that everything was very, very sad—”
“Blinded by the glare of the headlights and confused by the incessant groaning of the horns, the apparition stood swaying for a moment. . .”
“a sudden emptiness. . .endowing with complete isolation the figure of the host”
“I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known”
With so many mysterious images, contradictory moments, and linguistic switch-ups showing up to Gatsby’s party like his wild guests, we begin to get an uneasy feeling about the direction this story is taking. Sure, alcohol clouds much of the behavior and perceptions of the party guests, but all the drinking in this book is no accident. Hedonism, or living to seek pleasure as a primary goal, sets people up for disappointment, even despair, when the fun doesn’t end up being as fun as they thought. We see it in drinking, we see it in Tom’s affairs, and we see it in Myrtle’s impulsive purchase of a puppy she later ignores. What seems like a good time lacks the substance and meaning these characters are searching for.
Great Gatsby Poetry Challenge: Chapters 3 & 4
Gatsby’s party takes a whole crew of butlers and caterers to pull off—and they have their work cut out for them! The raucous, ostentatious, and often surprisingly sad atmosphere of chapter 3’s shin-dig represents just one of many nights of revelry at the West Egg mansion. For both of these prompts, you will write in the voice of a servant answering to the whims of your voracious guests.
Free verse: Write a poem in which you take a five-minute break from your duties, whether they be juicing fruit, carrying trays of cocktails, setting out hor-d’oeuvres, or dusting the real books, and observe a guest or two. Are you drawn toward the dancing “gypsy”? The crying singer? The twins doing the baby act? Owl Eyes after he crashed his car? What are they doing, and why? What does it feel like serving these people and their demands?
Form: Villanelles focus on repetition and cycles. Write a villanelle from the point of view of a butler, chauffeur, or other servant from Gatsby’s mansion, choosing lines or images that strike you to repeat as your refrains.
Here’s my villanelle. Yes, I know the novel mentions lemons and oranges, not limes, but you know how orange has no rhymes!
Gatsby’s Butler at the Juicer
I press a button two hundred times
so partiers can get a kick in their booze.
The empty halves of lemons and limes
build a pyramid racoons will climb
as revelers descend in their hazy snooze.
I press a button two hundred times,
my hands reddening with the sting of rinds.
They sway and warble Beale Street Blues
to the empty halves of lemons and limes
once whole and hopeful in tropical climes.
I sympathize. No one has a care or clue
that I press a button two hundred times
when once I dreamed of more than dimes,
of more than life as a serf who pursues
the empty halves of lemons and limes.
My boss grew rich from falsehoods and crimes
while I pitch a game I’m rigged to lose.
I press a button two hundred times,
drained like these halves of lemons and limes.
The Great Gatsby Reading Schedule
April 7: Chapters 1-2
April 14: Chapters 3-4
April 21: Chapters 5-6
April 28: Chapters 7-9
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