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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

30 September 2022

In Nashville, Malcolm Guite finds himself in a Disneyfied version of Coleridge’s Xanadu

THE other week, I found myself in Nashville, in the magnificently named Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Centre. This was less like a hotel than like a hideously Disneyfied version of Coleridge’s Xanadu in “Kubla Khan”; for it did indeed seem that “twice five miles of fertile ground, With walls and towers were girded round”, and all that vast acreage was roofed over, although this was less a “stately pleasure dome” and more a plastic one.

However far you walked, it was almost impossible to get outdoors: you would look down from a balcony or a high walkway and see the “gardens bright with sinuous rills” and the “sunny spots of greenery”; but then you would look up, and there was the ceiling with its glass panels, and all around was the whirr of the air-conditioning, the distant hum of hidden pumps and machinery.

Within this vast indoor space, there was even a river with cascades and waterfalls — a river so extensive that you could pay to have a boat tour on it. But it went only round in circles. It was scarcely “Alph, the sacred river” from Coleridge’s poem, that primal fount of poetic imagination welling eternally from the Eden within us. Rather, it was a sanitised replica that flowed between plastic banks and the faked paraphernalia of some idealised New Orleans. Even the tour boat, it turned out, didn’t actually float, but ran on a little grooved track at the bottom of the “river”. As far as the eye could see, everything (and perhaps everyone) was pretending to be something other than itself. No wonder I felt like a fish out of water.

I was just thinking this, standing on a little bridge over the water, when I noticed that there were real fish in the artificial river: huge catfish and outsized carp were swimming round and round the immense and inane circularity of that river. The Northern Irish artist Ross Wilson, who happened to be standing beside me, suddenly asked: “Do you think those fish know this isn’t real?” It was a great question, just the kind that artists are apt to ask. For a second, I imagined archangels, supercelestial intelligences, leaning over the edge of heaven and gazing down on the two of us, lost in these shadowlands, and asking: “Do you think they know it’s not real?”

And yet, for all the tackiness of our surroundings, we were also immersed in something real and very revitalising: a celebration of church music, hymnody, and song, and, by extension, of the interplay between theology and the imaginative arts. Not all the music was to my taste, but it was all excellently done, with heart and soul, as well as skill. When several thousand people all began to sing harmonies, it was abundantly beautiful: a touch of the “symphony and song” in Coleridge’s poem.

I was there as poet-in-residence, and, that evening, I had the joy of standing on the stage of the “Grand Ole Opry”, among musicians I deeply admired, and reciting my own encomium on music, in some lines from my “Ode to St Cecilia”:

Cecilia, give way to grace again,
Transmute it into music for us all:
Music to stir and call the sleeping soul,
And set a counterpoint to all our pain,
To bless our senses in their very essence
And undergird our sorrow in good ground.
Music to summon undeserved abundance,
Unlooked-for over-brimming, rich and

The unexpected plenitude of sound
Becoming song.

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