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Melchior misses the boat


Packing Up the Lute: background and reading
WD Snodgrass Poet
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When I was young, I… I went for a long time studying different musical instruments thinking I'd become a musician and finally realized that I… I really wasn't good enough. And for about 20 years, I didn't touch any of that. Then I… as the folk music thing came along, I… I got interested in… in guitars and… and got a guitar and started twinkling at it. And… but then also, I got much more interested… I got interested in the lute. And, and I have… I have several very fine lutes. I have a beautiful one made by David Rubio, a really… a really marvelous instrument. And the trouble was that, when I started playing, I played in… in what… in what's the normal guitar position. They call it the Segovia position, with your hand across the strings sort of at right angles. Well, then I had a teacher for a couple lessons, and he said, 'No no no, you must play like this with your fingers back and your thumb up here'. Well, that was easy for me to do because of the way my hand… hands are built. I have a rather long and… it… it isn't just that it's long… my thumb reaches out further than a good many people's do. So that… that was a comfortable position, and… and using your fingers this way on the string gives you a better tone. Then, about 10 years ago, people got to looking at the old paintings of people playing the lute and saw that, no, the painters really meant that… that the way that they played was with the thumb underneath the fingers. And so I started trying to do that. That was a severe mistake, I must say. My… it doesn't fit my hand at all, especially after these years of playing in… in other ways. On top of that, I was using computers a good deal, and between them, I managed to get carpal tunnel and tendonitis and all kinds of things like that. I had to quit playing altogether. Well, this is a poem about, about getting older and not being able to play the lute anymore. I was never any good at it, but I… I really loved doing it. And this is a poem about… it's just called Packing Up the Lute.


I ease you down, your strings set loose
A tone or three, all twinkle gone,
Into this snug case shaped like a goose
Or casket for some crook-necked swan,

Your head [sic] wrapped in satin cloth,
Head nestled between blocks of foam,
Lid latched against woodworm and moth
Then stacked in our attic catacomb

While I, who used to warm and tease you
Thumbing your belly's deepest cords,
Wonder if we could deepfreeze you
Or lift you on some rocket towards

The icy waste space beyond Mars
Unfingered by Earth's atmosphere
To shine out with the clearcut stars
In some show-stopper of the spheres.

Just keep cool, love; no fault of yours
Assigns [sic] us to this long exile;
Medical science may yet find cures
For age and carpal tunnel. Meanwhile,

There's not too much left up this sleeve.
I growl like Melchior, lingering
On stage to ask: "When's the next swan leave?"
And what's left now I could still sing?

Go lie with love notes and snapshots. You
were just too fine a vice to last.
Condemned to virtue, we thumb through
Evidence of our misspent past.


American poet WD Snodgrass, entered the world of poetry with a bang winning several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, for his first collection of poetry, Heart's Needle. A backlash followed his controversial fifth anthology “The Fuehrer Bunker”, but in recent years these poems have been reassessed and their importance recognised.

Listeners: William B. Patrick

William B. Patrick is a writer and poet who lives in Troy, New York. Among his work are the poetry volumes "We Didn't Come Here for This" and "These Upraised Hands", the novel "Roxa: Voices of the Culver Family" and the plays "Rescue" and "Rachel's Dinner". His most recent work is the non-fiction book "Saving Troy", based on the year he spent following the Troy Fire Department.

Mr. Patrick has been Writer-in-Residence at the New York State Writers Institute and has taught at Old Dominion University, Onondaga Community College, and Salem State College, and workshops in Screenwriting and Playwriting at the Blue Ridge Writers Conference in Roanoke, Virginia. He has received grants from the Academy of American Poets, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Artists Foundation, and the Virginia Commission for the Arts.

Tags: Andrés Segovia, David Rubio

Duration: 4 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: August 2004

Date story went live: 29 September 2010