Book Review

Tom C. Hunley, The Poetry Gymnasium: 94 Proven Exercises to Shape Your Best Verse, McFarland & Co, 2012

by Carmen Germain

In The Poetry Gymnasium: 94 Proven Exercises to Shape Your Best Verse, Tom C. Hunley writes that “the book’s title is intended as a wordplay and a nod at the progymnasmata and the gymnasmata, two classical sequences of exercises for orators. My model of instruction centers around writing exercises derived from the five canons of classical rhetoric:  invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery” (2). He plays with this analogy further. People belong to a gym for various reasons: to build muscle or lose weight, to gain flexibility or learn new ways to challenge themselves—and many of these aspirations fit the poetry gym as well.  In Hunley’s text, beginning and intermediate creative writing students as well as aspiring self-taught poets are given “practical writing exercises with clear purposes and proven results” (1). The text is also a good read: his writing style is informal and welcoming, informed and comprehensive. 

An associate professor of English at Western Kentucky University, Hunley’s poetry has been published in TriQuarterly, Five Points, North American Review and New York Quarterly, among others.  He is the director of Steel Toe Books and has teaching experience that includes university and community colleges as well as prisons.  The Poetry Gymnasium was written based on his desire for a text that reflected his approach to teaching; he feels existing books demonstrate how and what well-known poets write, but do not integrate student-friendly instruction within the exercises.

The braiding of poetry to rhetoric might at first glance be disconcerting to those who teach a college’s or university’s composition courses—students’ creative writing packed with strange and wonderful metaphors, after all, is a respite from students’ analytical essays about gun control, pro and con.   But Hunley makes the case that in poetry as in powerful persuasive argument, the writer has to invent, arrange, develop style, use memory, and deliver; the book is divided into chapters devoted to exercises in each of these areas.  Included is a brief discussion of the chapter’s purpose, the title of the exercise (enticements on their own: “Emoticans Recollected in Tranquility” and “Hey, Haven’t We Metaphor?”), as well as the objective, background, and rationale for the exercise, and clear instructions with a model poem and a student example.               

“Studentisms” in some of the poems demonstrate that these examples are indeed field tested—in one poem, possessive “its” is spelled “it’s”—no professor/editor has meddled with the writing.  We’re reading the working drafts of poems by students applying exercises and making connections.  When I was a creative writing student exposed to Yeats and Thomas and Dickinson, I remember how frustrating it was writing my poems, how they wouldn’t sing in their chains.  The distance between the great creators and my apprenticeship was vast.  Addressing this problem, Hunley demonstrates that many of his exercises derive from reading an experienced poet’s work.  He teaches students how to discover the approach behind the poem and apply the ideas to their own work, which also encourages them to create their own prompts, forms, and rules.  And it’s refreshing to see how this audience succeeds in applying the message. 

The introduction to each chapter also includes historical information as well as brief references to books, essays, meditations, and theories about poetry, encouraging students to read beyond the text. In the chapter on style, for example, Latin and Greek concepts of imitatio and mimesis are illustrated, and by bringing in this information, Hunley addresses the reluctance of some beginning poets to read other poets, how their fear of being unduly influenced isn’t borne out: writers through the centuries have learned craft by imitating the writing of those they admire. Throughout the book this practiced poet advises students how to avoid chopped prose, how to imagine the world beyond the autobiographical “I,” how to slow down a reading of a poem (both in private and public).

The last chapter, adhering to the classical rhetorical model that structures the text, focuses on delivery. Dana Gioia’s Can Poetry Matter?, Hunley states, encourages us to honor the work of poets we admire by reading that work with our own poems when we are before an audience. And there’s good advice here regarding how to read that poetry in public: anyone who has been to poetry readings knows poems can be stunning on the page but lose all power if the poet mumbles or gallops or otherwise damages her fine work through a voice that lacks conviction or confidence. Some of this advice, however, may backfire.  In one of the exercises, he suggests annotating the poem and acting out what action the line is showing:  “[i]f the poem mentions a fishing trip, one line might call for a casting motion, another line might call for a look of straining and struggling” (226).

He suggests trying these actions out on a test audience first before performing the poem. I agree. These gestures have to be natural to the performer or the performance will bury the poems. And in his view, Garrison Keillor is the master reader for students to emulate. I confess I stopped listening to Prairie Home Companion years ago because I gave up on Keillor ever challenging the Minnesota Nice stereotype. As a result, his earnest, avuncular voice eclipsed the poems for me in an irritating way. That said, the chapter emphasizes how important it is for poets to read their work like actors, showing conviction for what life the poem leads. Before I read The Poetry Gymnasium, I hadn’t seen poetry texts that addressed this important point in much detail.

As one who taught creative writing to traditional-age college students, war veterans, retired judges, single mothers, displaced persons, and others who were hungry for poetry and how it’s done, and as one who co-directed a writing series for years where these students had the opportunity to hear poetry from the hearts and minds of those writing it, I would recommend The Poetry Gymnasium. It is a student-friendly but challenging course text. I would also recommend it as an addition to a more experienced poet’s home gym for those days when the walking legs are a bit stiff. The meditations, advice, discussions of craft and theory, references, and “94 proven exercises” will tone, build, and flex your poetry core.

Carmen Germain grew up a free-range child in rural Wisconsin. Cherry Grove published These Things I Will Take With Me in 2008. New Poets of the American West has published her poem about the harrowing experience of sharing Wisconsin roads with deer at dawn and dusk.