I met Stephen Pentz, proprietor of First Known When Lost, for lunch on Friday at a nearby mall, and he presented me with a copy of Saul Bellow’s just-published Letters. This was our first non-digital meeting and the next two hours evaporated with talk almost exclusively of books – Bellow, of course, and Edward Thomas, Larkin and Amis, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Elizabeth Bishop, Kay Ryan, Walker Percy, Derek Mahon, Bob Dylan, John Cheever and so on. We agreed the allure of Yeats and Frost has palled, that Louis MacNeice is underrated and the blogosphere can be an uncivil place. Like Bellow in his letters, our talk was bookish, a rare indulgence.
It’s to Stephen I owe my recent discovery of C.H. Sisson, and I wish to return the favor. With our meeting place in mind – a “bar & grille” in a suburban shopping mall – I offer Sisson’s translation of Horace’s Ode II.15 (In the Trojan Ditch: Collected Poems and Selected Translations, 1974):
“There will be nothing soon for the plough
But huge bulks everywhere. On all sides
Wider than lakes, the city
Lamp-standards drive out the elms,
“Planes, beeches. Once it was fertile here.
Edges of violets circumscribed
The grove; there was everywhere something for the
Nostrils, but now there is nothing.
“Where there were once forests a region of
Concrete. Until quite recently
There were meadows at Westminster.
The salmon leaped where Raleigh was beheaded.
“Once there was only nature for ornament.
Then there was ornament and art flourished;
Now there is only the South Bank
And, of course, the Arts Council.
“It was not laws but a less abstract
Technology made the turf spring.
The churches in those days, you may
Remember, were built of stone.”
Sisson’s reworking of Horace and our talk of Larkin reminded me of the latter's “Going, Going” (The High Windows):
“And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There'll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.”
Many thanks, Stephen. May we continue to “Go talking and have easy hours.”