national poetry day

In the UK, today is National Poetry Day and this year’s theme is ‘freedom’.

I would like to discuss Mary Stewart’s poem ‘The Forest of Katyn’, from her poetry collection published in 1990 called Frost on the Window and other poems. This poem is both beautiful and horrifying, and is about the Katyn Forest Massacre.

Firstly, a little background. During World War II, mass graves were discovered in the forest of Katyn near Smolensk in German-occupied Russia. Nazi Germany announced the discovery of some 4,500 dead Polish citizens including officers, teachers, writers, lawyers and engineers, and stated that the NKVD (the Soviet secret police) was responsible for the atrocity. Stalin asserted that the murders had been committed by the Nazis, with Britain and other war-time allies accepting the Soviet Union’s version of events during the war. It was 1990 before the USSR admitted responsibility for the massacres: following the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, some 230,000 Polish prisoners of war had been captured, and after interviews and interrogations, in March 1940 21,857 prisoners were sentenced to death and removed to three execution sites. They were shot in the back of the head and disposed of in mass graves. As the first burial site that was discovered, the Katyn Forest Massacre is the name often given to cover all the murders at each site.

Now that we know more about what happened at Katyn, let’s look at Mary Stewart’s poem. Unfortunately, I cannot find this poem anywhere online and it is pointless to discuss a poem that no-one else can read, follow a link to or buy (the book is out of print) so I am quoting it here in chunks. Copyright of course rests with Mary Stewart’s estate.

Mary Stewart’s ‘The Forest of Katyn’ from Frost on the Window and other poems, Hodder, 1990


The opening stanza is I think really chilling, with its eerie silence and also because of the way Mary Stewart juxtaposes love and violent death: ‘we lie close as lovers lie’ but ‘ugly’ and left ‘to putrefy’. She reinforces this jarring contrast by quoting from the Andrew Marvell poem ‘To his coy mistress’ – Marvell’s line ‘Had we but World enough, and Time’ concerns seizing the day and consummating a relationship, in a poem about lust and life, whereas in ‘The Forest of Katyn’ there is ‘world enough and time’ but nothing left for these dead men except to ‘lie and rot’.

Mary Stewart’s ‘The Forest of Katyn’ from Frost on the Window and other poems, Hodder, 1990


The shorter second verse continues the unnerving tone of the poem, making clear that the speaking dead are ‘murdered’ men who have been betrayed and cannot rest under the ‘hammered down’ ‘Judas earth’. There is something really disturbing about the sibilance and alliteration echoing the word ‘travesty’ in the lines ‘We stir and twist, and settle deep/ Into a travesty of sleep’, I think this reflects the writer’s anger at the men’s grotesque fate.

Mary Stewart’s ‘The Forest of Katyn’ from Frost on the Window and other poems, Hodder, 1990


The next two verses bring a sense of momentum to the poem. Again it is stressed that the dead’s ‘travesty of sleep’ is not ‘rest’: ‘We were not asleep’. I think some of the uneasiness of ‘obliteration’, ‘wheels and wings and boots’ and ‘battling’ is heightened by the description of the ‘sweet wood’ ‘Where birches grow, and junipers’ – nature may be beautiful but what of humanity? The fact that the Katyn bodies were found by the occupying Nazi army (and when she wrote the poem I’m not sure if Mary Stewart would have known who was responsible for the killings) means that the finders are not straightforward rescuers; how do they differ from the killers?

Mary Stewart’s ‘The Forest of Katyn’ from Frost on the Window and other poems, Hodder, 1990


This is the final stanza. It has a sombre elegiac tone suitable to its subject and finishes with a repetition of the poem’s pre-occupation with rest.

Rather like her poem ‘Lidice’, which I looked at here for last year’s National Poetry Day, ‘The Forest of Katyn’ is a poem of strong, deep emotion contained and channelled in the discipline of poetry. Anger and compassion simmer and vibrate in every line. I think both poems are excellent and show Mary Stewart’s mastery of language. As for this year’s National Poetry Day theme of freedom, it is part of the deep sadness of ‘The Forest of Katyn’ that the dead are written as craving only the freedom to rest.

As ever, I would like to know everyone else’s thoughts. What do you think of this poem? Have you read any of Mary Stewart’s poetry? I’d love to hear from you.

Embed from Getty Images

The featured image and this photograph are of the Katyn memorial in Krakow. I visited there several years ago and very much like the simplicity of this monument. The second photograph is captioned on Getty Images as: ‘People line up to pay their respect on April 14, 2010 to Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria under the Katyna Cross that commemorates the 22000 Polish victims killed in the Katyn massacre. The couple were among 96 people who died on April 10 in the fiery crash of a government jet carrying dozens of Polish dignitaries to ceremonies in Russia marking 70 years since Soviet secret police slaughtered thousands of Polish officers during World War II.’

PS I contacted the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh in my attempt to track down ‘The Forest of Katyn’ online and found them very helpful. You may be interested to know that they hold a copy of Frost on the Window, and they also have a sound recording of one of Mary Stewart’s poems – but please give them notice if you intend to visit them to listen to it, so that they can ensure a cassette player is available.

Some sources on the Katyn Massacre:

The Katyn Controversy: Stalin’s Killing Field by Benjamin B. Fischer, CIA website a comprehensive website

BBC article on Katyn

Wikipedia article on Katyn Massacre