“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.

Mundane Moments: Harry’s new companion.

My maternal grandpa was a well-meaning but mediocre photographer, skilled at bringing the shutter down a moment too early or late, or in taking pictures of things that were not as quirky or offbeat (or well-lit) as he thought.

I’m going to dredge some of his efforts out of the family scrapbooks where they sit unappreciated, and bring them out for contemplation.

Another installment, then.

# # # # #


Harry, I speak for all of us at the firm when I wish you a long and happy retirement. As long as any of us can remember, you’ve been on the job, quick with a smile and eager to help.

Now, as you head off to enjoy your golden years, we’ve all chipped in to get you a small token of our esteem.

*sound of paper ripping*

Yup. It’s a brand-new television!

Y’see, Harry, regular interaction with other people is gonna go from a daily reality to a distant memory, sooner than you know.

With your new television set, you can establish rewarding interpersonal relationships with the casts of such quality programs as “Occasional Wife,” “The Monroes” and “Pistols n’ Petticoats.” Pshaw, Harry! Retirement need not be lonely.

And when the arthuritis locks your knees so badly you have to sit still for three or four hours, your TV will allow you to live vicariously through the antics of the Yanks, Mets and New York Football Giants. Yes, nothing keeps a man quite so young as televised sports!

But that’s not all. Sister Bertrille — and yes, red tartan looks fantastic on you, Sister — would you tell Harry more about his new television set?

It’s not just any television set, Harry. It’s portable!

That means watching the TV never has to be boring. When you get tired of watching in the den, you can move your set to the kitchen. Then, after a few weeks, you can move it back to the den. And in the summer, you can even move it to the screen porch.

(As long as you’re still physically able to lift it, that is.)

There’s nothing like a TV set to remind you you’re alive, Harry.

Why, I was up late the other night after a couple beers, and there was this actress in an old black-and-white movie who looked just like a girl I dated when I was 19. Yeah, we were real close, she and I. In fact, seeing that face felt like somebody had grabbed my heart and turned it about 90 degrees counterclockwise. That’s what I mean by feeling alive, Harry.

Anyway … we’ll all miss you.

But now that you’ve got America’s best friend to keep you company — in any room of the house! — we know you’ll be just as busy, engaged and on top of things as you were in your days at the firm.

Want some chocolate cake, Harry?

June 1967, Stamford, Connecticut.
It was a retirement party; that much is true.

It started on 12th and Clairmount.

My great-uncle Jimmy died yesterday in Indiana, only two days short of the Mayan apocalypse. He was 99.

He was my maternal grandma’s brother, and the second-to-last surviving member of that generation on either side of the family. (My great-aunt Eleanor, still cranking along at 100, is the last. The genes in my family rival Laxton’s Superb trees for hardiness.)

I didn’t know him nearly as well as my mother did, and I hadn’t seen him in quite a few years. My knowledge of him comes back in bits and threads:

– He had the puckish Irish gleam in his eye. My mother once told me about the time she visited him in Detroit as a young girl, and he introduced her to his colleagues as his “child bride.”

– He also had the Irish taste for a bit of strong drink, though — unlike others in his branch of the family — he kept it under control.

– He shows up in a wonderful family snapshot taken at my maternal grandparents’ home in Connecticut in 1974. No idea what inspired this, but I imagine it made everyone laugh then, and it makes me smile now:

Nice day for fish-grasping, eh what?

Finally, Great-Uncle Jimmy was a policeman in Detroit, which gave him a front-row seat to a tumultuous moment in American history.

According to family lore, he had to miss my parents’ wedding in July 1967 because he was on riot duty — along with the state police, the National Guard and, eventually, an airborne infantry division of the U.S. Army.

The chronology doesn’t exactly add up: The wedding was July 22, and the riots began in the early hours of July 23. Perhaps there was some inkling that they were coming, and he was held back as a precaution. Or maybe I misunderstood the story, and Great-Uncle Jimmy made it to the wedding but was called back soon afterward.

I never got — or more accurately, never took — the opportunity to ask him about the experience. But I’ve wondered sometimes what it was like for a fundamentally decent, good-humored man to find himself in the midst of an inferno like that.

Everything on this blog comes back to music at some point, so here’s something suitable from John Lee Hooker.

It’s not a eulogy for my great-uncle’s long, full life … just a depiction of a few eventful days of it, from a common man’s point of view: