This essay explores the aesthetics of Bertolt Brecht’s compositions of poetry with photography in the so-called photo-epigrams of his 1955 book War Primer. The photo-epigrams have mostly been viewed and appreciated as interventions in photography; but in this essay I aim to show their novelty and efficacy as poetic inventions. To do so, I draw on Karl Marx’s and Walter Benjamin’s views apropos the decline of poetry under modern, industrial capitalism to argue that Brecht, in his photo-epigrams, is responding to—and attempting to counter—a specific problem at the heart of modern poetry: the crisis in perceptibility and accessibility. By coupling poems with photographs—in unique and uniquely politicised ways—Brecht provides a resonant critique of the deadly ideologies of the ruling classes engaged in World War II, as well as a method for addressing the decline in the readability of poetry in the modern era.
- War Primer