Original Research

‘Stepping into the painting’: Franz Marc, Mary Oliver and the ekphrastic process

Tony Ullyatt
Literator | Vol 39, No 1 | a1352 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/lit.v39i1.1352 | © 2018 Tony Ullyatt | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 28 September 2016 | Published: 14 June 2018

About the author(s)

Tony Ullyatt, Department of English and Comparative Studies, University of Fort Hare, South Africa


This article discusses Mary Oliver’s poem, ‘Franz Marc’s Blue Horses’, as an ekphrastic poem. More specifically, the discussion opens with a brief overview aimed at an understanding of ekphrasis to show how its development through the centuries has altered definitions of what constitutes ekphrasis and how these fresh understandings have broadened its possibilities for the modern poet. Siglind Bruhn’s ideas about the three stages of the ekphrastic process are then outlined. They trace the steps a poet has to follow in order to produce an ekphrastic poem; they follow consecutively, with the second depending on the first, and the third depending on the second. Understanding this process enables readers to appreciate the ways in which Oliver adheres to, or diverts from, it in producing her poem about Franz Marc. The discussion turns to Hans Lund’s typology of the various verbal and visual relationships in ekphrasis that are open to the poet. His typology helps readers to consider answers to the following questions: what elements of the artwork does the poet make use of, and which does she exclude? In what ways are these elements deployed in the creation of her verbal text? And in broader terms, what is the nature of visual and verbal relationship in this particular poem? How tentative might that relationship be? After a description of Franz Marc’s painting, The Tower of Blue Horses, as an Expressionist artwork, the discussion moves on to Mary Oliver ’s poem. The text is conceptualised as Oliver ’s ‘script’ as it takes up Stephen Cheeke’s suggestion ‘to imagine what happens next’ after the poet’s initial interface with the stasis of the artwork’s pregnant moment. The article modifies the frequently used metaphor of the painting as a single frame from a film, replacing the solitary frame with the idea of a single scene as more credible metaphorically, the scene itself being divided into several segments reflecting the poem’s structure. Thus, the punctum temporis (or pregnant moment) as a single scene from a film becomes the guiding metaphor of the article. Then, the article argues that Oliver develops her poem as a filmic narrative, offering readers a series of ‘segments’ depicting various aspects of the evolving narrative as she visualises it. These ekphrastic processes are explored in some detail. Reading the poem in a filmic way allows the poet to controvert the implicit stasis of the painting and, through the transmedialisation of the visual to the verbal, to create a dynamic narrative ‘script’, using the poem’s segmented structure, to explore the text’s meaning by offering readers a vivid evocation of her experience of Marc’s painting.


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