“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.

An ode to three jars.

When I’m in a dark mood and feeling depressive,
I tend to turn inward and vanish recessive.
The fog steals my voice and my urge to create,
and drags down my thoughts with an infinite weight.

The kitchen, perversely, is one place I go
when the tides of my spirit are ebbed to full low.
Creating in food is an uplift of sunshine —
and I don’t need a muse, just a recipe’s outline.

So today I approached my first giardiniera
Like Peter Cetera.

(America’s favourite balladeer sure looks like a guy who appreciates a good homemade pickle. Work with me, here.)


The recipe’s guidance was quickly fulfilled;
Some chopping, some boiling, some mixing, then chill.
The vegetables radiate crispness and sun,
while the brine lends a tang and some heat to each one.

Would I make this again? I think I wouldn’t say no;
but I’d put on some gloves when I chopped jalapenos.
I’ve cut them before, and you’d think I’d be learning
that it’s harder to cook when your fingers are burning.

(The heat nagged at me like a long-broken promise,
and stung my John Thomas.)


Now I’m three jars richer of home-pickled food,
And find myself in a more positive mood.
Which is the better reward? I don’t know;
but I welcome each one for its own type of glow.

There’s dangers in linking your food to emotions,
so this isn’t the greatest of curative notions.
Still, I welcome relief wherever it’s found,
and I hope that my veggies will help it stick ’round.

And in a few days I’ll eat giardiniera
On firma terra.


Thoughts, drunk on the season’s first apple.

Today I ate the season’s first apple,
a Honeycrisp,
the size of your head.
To hold it strained my fingers.
It was mellow,
tasting mildly of banana,
and it made my mind spin
all the way
to poetry.

# # #

I will condone,
as an adult,
only one thing
to be flung from car windows:
An apple core.

There is, no doubt,
some argument against that;
some innocent wild beast
to choke on the core,
or some native plant
pushed from its one true home
by intrusive apple-shoots.

I do not care.
I eat precisely
behind the wheel,
stripping each morsel
from off the core
like diamonds.

And then,
along some ill-watched stretch
or blind-treed curve,
I fling
with best wishes.

# # #

When I run for President,
mark not my words,
because there is only one promise
on which I plan
to ever make good.

When I am President,
the scientific resources
of our mighty nation
will be devoted
to the creation and nurture
of a brand-new apple —
sweet of flesh,
dappled in color,
resilient in nature,
generous in yield,
to be called
Hobo’s Feast.

Front-page photos
will show horn-rimmed men
in pristine lab coats,
holding up strains
of brand-new cultivars,
practically vibrating
with potential.

When the magic combination
reveals itself,
shy undergraduates,
too fresh-faced or knock-kneed
for the Peace Corps,
will do their civic duty
scattering seeds
in public parks,
in forests,
in empty Midwest pastures,
in vacant lots,
millions and millions,
a far-flung cosmos
of seeds.

And when they grow,
all may reap.
Hungry travelers,
sportive children,
the desolate,
the down-and-out,
and those
who simply enjoy
crispness between their teeth
and gentle sweetness fading on their tongues.

Yes, my friends,
a Hobo’s Feast
on every palm.

I have never lied
to the American people.