A Comparative Analysis of the Modernist Poem The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams and the Postmodernist Song I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag by Joe McDonald

Categories: The Red Wheelbarrow

Modernism and postmodernism are two different movements in the arts, architecture, and criticism. They appeared in different time periods, and have specific characteristics, styles and themes. Modernism appeared at the end of the 19 century, and ended in the middle of the 20 century. It was conservative, but also revolutionary. A clear duality was present. Postmodernism appeared towards the end of the 20" century, and challenged the modernist way of thinking and seeing life. The poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos William is a modernist piece of literature, while the song "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" by Joe McDonald is a postmodernist piece of music.

The two pieces are focused on different themes, and they transmit their message in different ways. William's poem and McDonald's song are two classic examples for the eras they were created, modernism and postmodernism.

The poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William appears to be quite simple, or without real meaning. The modernist poet wanted to show that simple things can, and are important.

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He uses simple, everyday language, which everybody can understand. One of the modernism characteristics is simplicity. While the poem is simple in language, it is quite serious. The poem starts with the words "so much depends/ upon" (William, lines 1-2), which tell us the author is serious, and the poem has a meaning. On the contrary, the song "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" by McDonald appears to be aloof and disconnected even though it is about a serious topic, the Vietnam war.

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Making fun of and being cold towards a serious subject are postmodernism characteristics. The song makes light of the possible humankind total nuclear destruction by saying "Just hope and pray that they drop the bomb/ They drop it on the Viet Cong" (McDonald, verses 19-20). While the poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" is simple, and highlights the importance of simple objects, the song "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" talks about a serious matter and mocks it.

Postmodernism has many characteristics, and one of them is pastiche. A pastiche is a light-hearted imitation or mash-up, sometimes for the purpose of mockery. The song "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" by McDonald is an example of pastiche. It is a mix of three styles: ragtime, marching music, and folk music. When Joe starts singing "Well, come on all of you, big strong men/ Uncle Sam needs your help again" (McDonald, verses 1-2), the music is folk, but it also has a ragtime style. McDonald uses different styles to mock the war, and people who are behind it. On the other hand, William's poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow" has one main style: imagism. Imagism was a movement in early 20 century Anglo-American poetry that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language. The poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" is a great example of imagism, since the poem itself is an image. Using the sentence as a painter uses line and colour, Williams breaks up the words in order for us to see the object more closely. The line three and four, "a red wheel/ borrow" (Williams, lines 3-4), starkly introduce the image of the wheelbarrow. The vivid word "red" lights up the scene. The monosyllable words in line three elongates the line, putting an unusual pause between the word "wheel" and "barrow". This has the effect of breaking the image down to its most basic parts. Pastiche and imagism are two main different characteristics of postmodernism and modernism.

One of the characteristics of modernism is vagary. Modernist authors do not give a clear message. They want the readers to think about it, and come up with their own conclusion. While the image of a wheelbarrow is clear in the poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" the lines "so much depends/ upon" (Williams, lines 1-2) tells the reader that the poem is not just about a red wheelbarrow, it is about something else. Whit these opening lines, William issues a challenge to his reader. He dares them to figure out what else the poem is about. There can be many theories. Williams may comment on the functionality of the wheelbarrow, the way it allows people to move things from one place to another. The fact that the wheelbarrow is "glazed with/ rain/ beside the white/ chickens" (Williams, lines 5-8) may suggest that is about a return to normal after a storm. The reader can imagine the wheelbarrow immediately after the rain, when the bright sun has created the wheelbarrow's shiny surface and has made the immaculately white chickens. Unlike the William's poem, McDonald's song has a clear message, even though is transmitted with irony, sarcasm and dark humour.

The song mocks the war in Vietnam, and the verses "What are we fighting for?/ Don't ask me, I don't give a damn" (McDonald, verses 8-9) tell the listeners that Joe doesn't care about the war, and he doesn't see its purpose. The song also makes fun of the American patriotism, when it tells parents that they can be the first in their neighborhood to receive their son in a casket: "Come on mothers throughout the land/ Pack your boys off to Vietnam./ Come on fathers, and don't hesitate/ To send you sons off before it's too late./ You can be the first ones in your block/ To have your boy come home in a box." (McDonald, verses 43-48). When Joe says "There's plenty good money to be made/ By supplying the Army with tools of its trade" (McDonald, verses 17-18) he implies that one of the main reasons the war is happening are money. The song "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" has a clear anti- Vietnam war message. Making fun of certain issue is a postmodernism characteristic, while having a vague message is a modernism one.

The poem "The Red Wheelbarrow" by Williams is a classic example of modernism. Likewise, the song "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" by Joe McDonald is a classic example of its era, postmodernism. Putting these two pieces of art side by side, we can point out the different themes and characteristics of two different movements. They also show how people used to think in different periods of time. While the two movements are different, both of them gave interesting art pieces, be it in literature, music or cinematography.

Works Cited

  1. McDonald, Joe. I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag. Berkeley, California: Arhoodie Records' studios, 1965.
  2. Williams, William Carlos. The Red Wheelbarrow. Paris: Contact Publishing Company, 1923. Print.
Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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A Comparative Analysis of the Modernist Poem The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams and the Postmodernist Song I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag by Joe McDonald. (2023, Apr 19). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-comparative-analysis-of-the-modernist-poem-the-red-wheelbarrow-by-william-carlos-williams-and-the-postmodernist-song-i-feel-like-i-m-fixin-to-die-rag-by-joe-mcdonald-essay

A Comparative Analysis of the Modernist Poem The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams and the Postmodernist Song I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag by Joe McDonald essay
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