In defense of the Rose of Tralee poem

The Rose of Tralee was on this week, and caused not a little stir for a number of good and bad reasons. Two of the main causes were the commendable efforts of the Sydney Rose to raise an issue that is fundamental to women in Ireland: the need to have a referndum on (and hopefully see the repeal of) the 8th amendment to our constitution. There was also the ill-judged and utterly failed attempt by Fathers for Justice to hijack the event briefly. The competition, like almost all beauty contests of one shade or another, ismore or less completely out of whack with contemporary progress views of what it means to be a woman, and to be valued as one. There are people (chiefly women) who are far more qualified to offer their take on the Rose of Tralee as something that enforces gender stereotyping. Which it definitely does. Why else would it have been caricatured twenty years ago in Fr. Ted as The Lovely Girls Competition? But that’s not what I want to write about in this post.

Rather, I want to offer a very brief defense of the poem as party piece in the competition. First and foremost, it needs to be said that I can rarely recall a poem I heard recited at the Rose of Tralee contest over the years that could be by any objective measure of the form be considered good. Most poems would be filed under what is known as doggerel. But that’s okay because, while the poems were rarely up to much,  I heard plenty of good recitations of bad poems. The take-away for me is this: I heard poems. On a show that was such a part of Ireland’s own bizarre culture of packaged Irishness for the diaspora that is watched by hundreds of thousands, presumably millions, of people annually for more than 60 years, I heard poetry. I can think of few places where one did not have to go and actively seek the poetry that might be found on the airwaves of RTE – on obscure radio and tv programmes. Or at state funerals. Poetry as part of the competition surely has some role in normalising the hearing of it. Sure, I wish the standard of poetry was better. And while many will no doubt object that no poetry is better than too much bad poetry for you, I’m not so sure.

As talents go, reciting a poorly crafted poem is no better or worse than doing a “hip hop dance” – surely that should be breakdancing, and that Rose the other night was not breakdancing – or rapping. After all poetry and rap are cousins. And as for making a breakfast roll… If getting rid of poetry is an attempt to make this contest seem more in touch with the yoof, well then, the contest hardly grasps its main demographic – i.e. the one that doesn’t hate tweet it live or watch it with dollops of irony. Basically, getting rid of the poem as part piece probably doesn’t do anything to speed up the show, nor make it more attractive.  Modernity would be more of what the Sydney Rose offered, not less poems with an abab rhyme.



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