The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A Conversation with Leonardo” is a brief poem in free verse, its forty-five lines divided into fifteen three-line stanzas. Speaking in the first person, the poet recalls one “stew of a night” he dreamed of conversing with Leonardo da Vinci, the great Renaissance artist, perhaps because his own “spread-eagled” body recalled the artist’s famous drawing that illustrated this position.

Once the narrator falls asleep, Leonardo, attempting to re-create his drawing with the narrator as the living model, pounces and draws a circle around him. The endeavor to fit real body into “turned ratio” provokes the modern poet to mildly rebuke the old master for his antiquated desire to coerce humanity into an ideal proportion: “ ‘I could have told you,/you’re sketching the wrong times.’ ” Stung by this implied challenge, Leonardo responds with an offensive truism of his own: Although the narrator is a “deformity/ among examples,” the “collector” can still use him if a hidden “memory of man to illustrate” remains.

The poet-narrator is quick to point out that the artist is not really referring to him at all: It is the idea of man that interests Leonardo. Representing a misguided search for illusory truths, this “memory” really has nothing to do with man at all. Man, suggests the poet is “measured not by absolutes,” but rather by the blemished and imperfect reality of “genre.” “Other examples/ of the same...

(The entire section is 514 words.)