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The fragment of poetry that made me an editor

06 Jul 2017

I have never forgotten this throw-away comment 

quattuor hinc rapimur viginti et milia raedis,
mansuri oppidulo, quod versu dicere non est,
signis perfacile est: venit vilissima rerum
hic aqua, sed panis longe pulcherrimus, ultra
callidus ut soleat umeris portare viator.
Horace Satires 1.5 lines 86-90

This is some of the Latin poetry that that I studied at university. It includes a half-line that caused the professor I was learning under to say something that has become rather a talisman of mine.

The poem is a travelogue, and, as is typical of Horace, it's fresh, witty and well observed. These four lines are describing a little town where Horace planned to stop to buy bread. He doesn't name the town, because, he explains, it can't be written in the hexameter verse that he is using.

Latin poetry relies on rhythm, and there are certain patterns of long and short syllables that cannot be fitted into this particular scheme. Anyway, that half line, 'quod versu dicere non est' (which cannot be named in verse), caused the professor standing up on the podium at the front of the room to remark that Horace must surely be joking '...because these people could do ANYTHING with words.'

I felt as if a light had gone on above my little table and chair down in the hall. I thought 'That's going to be my job description. A person who can do anything with words.'

I'll never be in Horace's league, but I do have 'quod versu dicere non est ' on a slip of paper above my desk. At 4pm when I'm wondering how on earth I can coax a pithy 400-word article out of 750 words, it reminds me, 'You are a person who can do anything with words.' When I'm trying to tactfully explain to a client that more work is needed before their novel can be submitted, I remember, 'I am a person who can do anything with words.' When I'm digging deep into my experience of multi-storey car parks to help an author set the scene for a clandestine meeting, I tell myself: 'I am a person who can do anything with words.'

It's astonishing how much influence a quotation can have. What's posted above your desk?