Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate

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ted huges book cover.

One of the oddest experiences of my life was being sent a clipping from The Times featuring a poem by Ted Hughes, who was appointed Poet Laureate in 1984. The poem, from 1992, was called ‘The Lobby from Under the Carpet’ and it told the story of how Hughes had sent a copy of one my early books, The Poisoned Womb, to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shortly after her election in 1987.

The book, published by Pelican Books in 1985, looked at the effects of a range of environmental pollutants on the human reproductive cycle. It was only when typing up the poem that I finally grasped what Hughes had done with his reference in the sixth verse to the missing commas (sperm) and full-stops (eggs).

Lobby from Under the Carpet
from Ted Hughes, Collected Poems
Faber and Faber, 2003, pages 837-838

© The Estate of Ted Hughes

In 1987, The Times
Invited me to write
Vatic stanzas for the victors
Of Election Night.

My Muse reared up with doleful cry:
‘Give each incumbent Member
While they fiddle their power bases
One thing to remember.

‘To drumbeats Britain’s brides repeat:
Hubby’s eager sperms
Since the Sixties are down forty
Per cent in real terms.

‘I dreamed a Waste-Disposal man
Hires each sperm as a tanker
To lug his poisons off somewhere –
While he winks at the Banker.

‘Or, in plain terms at the top of my voice:
the cost of the World
Chemical Industry taken as a whole over the last
two decades
a 40% drop
in the sperm count of all Western Males
nor can God alone help the ozone layer or the ovum’

The Shareholders, they gagged my Muse,
‘No commas? No full-stops?
This illiterate free-verse rubbish!
Give me top of the pops!’

My Muse had read
‘The Poisoned Womb’.
I thought her heart would break.
I sent a copy to Maggie: ‘O Maggie,
Read Elkington and awake!’

Five years reversed the problem.
Britain became the pit
Of Europe’s and the whole world’s waste
For us to scavenge it.

But now Professor Skakkebaek
Blows his angelic trump,
Revealing, like Christ’s cradle,
The Ministerial dump …

And that virility packet
You take home to your wife
Is down not forty but fifty per cent
i.e. half its life.

‘The population problem solved!’
Ticks the tittering tock.
But she feels lacking, somehow,
And he goes off half-cock.

Our only hope’s the Premier!
The sperm will have to stand,
And the ovum, ravaged by toxins,
Poor dumb pair, hand in hand.

Outside the door of Number Ten,
While the whole building’s a-quake,
With every bankrupt Industry
Bawling: ‘Awake! Awake!’