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“It’s music you’ve never heard.”

It is this date in 1967, and a prizewinning poetess is listening to the radio.

Not the classical music she usually listens to, but pop songs. Ones that make her think of a particular person in whom she seems to be developing a romantic interest.

She doesn’t entirely warm to the songs — they “(bleat) like a goat,” in her words.

But their effect is strong enough to make her evoke images of teenage couples in parked cars (“everyone is in / a delight at this ardor”), and to end her poem with a sing-songy, childlike rhyme (the only rhyme of her own doing in the piece):

I am in a delight with you, Music Man / Your name is Dr. Y. My name is Anne.

To a pop geek, reading the untitled poem is a little like hearing Badfinger or Big Star: The work itself is a pleasure, but the tangled backstory makes it hard to enjoy.

The poetess, of course, is Anne Sexton. The poem — dated November 18, 1967 in The Complete Poems — would not see print until 1978, four years after Sexton’s death by her own hand.

And later allegations that Sexton had an affair with her psychotherapist in the 1960s (a subtext that leaks out of this poem at every corner) can make a reader cringe.

Perhaps this is an oversimplification too easily drawn — I’m good at those — but it seems from this distance like the deeply troubled Sexton needed the highest standard of professional treatment, and didn’t get it.

(Assuming this link works as well for you as for me, you can read the poem and come to your own conclusions about Sexton’s mood. The following poem in the Dr. Y series, dated December 4, 1967, makes mention of sperm and adultery and begins, “I am no longer at war with sin.”)

Being both a pop geek and an incurable fantasist, I of course tried to put myself at Sexton’s writing desk and recreate the diet of music that helped these besotted words reach paper.

It is charming to imagine a person bent over her blank paper, deep in thought, with pop radio in the background, both feeding her imagination and playing away ignored … but we’re looking at a well-known poet summoning the muse, not a teenage girl doing her homework.

I could turn the long-lost radio back on again, thanks to the ARSA database of local radio play charts, which includes airplay lists from mid-November 1967 for two major Boston Top 40 stations, WRKO 680 and WBZ 1030. Sexton lived and worked in Weston, Mass., Boston’s most affluent suburb, so it seems like a fair bet to think she was tuned in to the sounds of the city.

WBZ’s chart for the week ending Nov. 11 and WRKO’s chart for the week ending Nov. 23 are fairly similar.

Both feature Ray Charles’ version of “Yesterday” in mid-chart and heading up. Sexton paraphrased the song in her poem, and presumably, Brother Ray must have made an impression on her. He tended to have that effect.

The poem also quotes the Peggy Lee chestnut “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” which suggests Sexton’s radio was not exclusively tuned to pop stations. The ARSA database shows no record of anyone having a rock-era hit with the song, which was most recently and notably covered by Diana Krall.

The WBZ and WRKO charts, as charts tend to be, are thick with love songs; and one wonders whether Sexton thought of Dr. Y when she heard “I Say A Little Prayer,” “Daydream Believer,” “Please Love Me Forever,” “It Must Be Him,” “It’s You That I Need,” or a dozen other soundtracks to ardor, teenage or otherwise.

The charts also cough up a Sixties oddity: Victor Lundberg’s patriotic spoken-word hit, “An Open Letter To My Teenage Son,” leaped a remarkable 25 spots over the course of a week to claim No. 5 on the WBZ chart.

One would like to think the arrival of “An Open Letter” signaled the point in her writing sessions where Sexton stubbed out her cigarette, turned off the music, and went to cook dinner or pick up the kids.

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2 responses »

  1. You’re making it harder for the rest of us who write about music to keep up. This is amazing. Thank you sir.

    Reply

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