A Conversation with Leonardo Analysis

John Ciardi

The Poem

“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.)

Forms and Devices

“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...

(The entire section is 571 words.)