The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 514

“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.

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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 school”—specific flesh-and-blood individuals molded by the trifles of daily life and the monotony of unremarkable existence—are the real human yardstick. With perhaps more pride than apology, the narrator declares, “I am, alas, that man.”

Leonardo sees the poet’s measuring of humanity by his own poor standard as “an absolute irrelevance” and a “poor excuse” for such a degraded view of man. Claiming to revere “what was never there,” the narrator declares that “God measures perfection and crock measures pot.” When the narrator thus implicitly alters the Renaissance credo from “Man is the measure of all things” to “Man is the measure of the tangible, the everyday, the insignificant,” Leonardo disdainfully comments that he is grateful he died when he did.

With the tenth stanza, the narrator shifts his focus from the unprovable, supposed relationship between man and God to the identifiable, actual relationships between man and man. The question he poses—“ ‘Masterdo you imagine God/ is thinking you in this sequence?’ ”—points to their own situation, and to the probability that he thinks more admiringly and reverently of the artist than God would, “ ‘were He inclined.’ ” Clearly disturbed by this new thought and by the perspective it opens on the modern existential theme of man alone in the universe, Leonardo approaches the revelation in the best way he knows how: He will try “ ‘a drawing of it. If it lives on paper—/ if I can make it live—I may understand.’ ”

The poet wistfully wishes to share this promised redrawing of the human condition but must wait for another time, another dream: “ ‘I will live for that,’ ” he pledges, and immediately wakes “to the dark” of his uncomfortable room.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 571

“A Conversation with Leonardo” is a loose adaptation of the “tenzone,” a poetic debate, usually between abstract qualities such as Body and Soul, often employing invective and formal verse. John Ciardi parodies this traditional form to create a slyly secular dream vision in which the argument occurs between two individuals—one living and one dead—with very distinct personalities. Instead of adopting the clearly designated formal divisions of the tenzone, Ciardi modernizes it with the rapid exchange offered by normal conversation.

The familiarity of the conversational structure and the language of daily speech establishes a realistic tone for the poem. Common vocabulary, regular syntax, and subtle repetition of key words all emphasize the prosaic qualities of the poetry, a goal Ciardi consciously pursued because he believed that poems should be read aloud so people could “speak the piece as the poet heard it.”

Another important device the poet uses to heighten and communicate the mundane reality behind his own poetic vision is concrete imagery. For example, the specific, unpleasant sensations of a sweltering night are completely, yet concisely, conveyed when the poet says the narrator “flailed off the one sheet” before he “wilted to sleep.”

This keen observation of significant details also helps to structure the poem. By focusing on the narrator’s physical discomfort at the beginning and end, the poet creates a realistic frame around the dialogue itself. The unrelentingly “really real” world expressed in this framework provides an important contrast to the philosophical matters debated, while also providing a concrete example of the narrator’s own unswerving vision of the world as it is.

In addition to structuring and contributing to the poem’s realistic vision, another function of Ciardi’s imagery is evocation. For example, when Leonardo appears in the dream, he is not merely an empty symbol; rather, he is the embodiment of vital, complex human values and of dynamic, affirmative qualities in the human spirit. As a man of the Renaissance, he simultaneously represents both its heritage and commitment to concepts such as harmony, proportion, order, balance, and clarity. As artist, he affirms the faith that art, like man, is inherently worthwhile and significant, for it expresses visions capable of transcending even death and time. Finally, as an individual person, he demonstrates a firm and self-possessed, distinctive personality.

Leonardo’s drawing, sometimes titled “Vitruvian Man,” also evokes its own network of associations. In stanzas 5 and 6, its image conjures revered names such as Protagoras, Praxiteles, and Plato, while it also summons thoughts from the Bible, scholastic logic, and Plato’s theory of ideas. All are linked by their creation of an abstract, idealized vision of man, which results from their attempts to connect the human with the divine, the transient with the eternal, the tangible with the intangible.

It is precisely this kind of endeavor that causes the narrator to exclaim, “Ah, the greatness of lost causes!” By doing so, he is making an important, personal judgment about the amalgam of values, beliefs, and methods Leonardo and his idealistic humanism represent. Unprovable absolutes such as Good, Truth, Beauty, and God, all of paramount importance to the Renaissance, are to him merely “the idea/ of the abstraction of nothing.” The narrator’s clear allegiance to a cynical, rational, empirical vision of man and the world is evidenced in his association with emphatically concrete particulars(“I am, alas, that man”), and in his smug, worldly-wise attitude toward Leonardo.

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Themes