Poetry Guide: Sijo
Sijo is a modern term for a Korean style of lyrical poetry, originally called tanga (literally, "short song"). The sijo strongly resembles Japanese haiku in having a strong foundation in nature in a short profound structure. Bucolic, metaphysical and astronomical themes are often explored. The lines average 14-16 syllables, for a total of 44-46. There is a pause in the middle of each line, so in English they are sometimes printed in six lines instead of three. Most poets follow these guidelines very closely although there are longer examples. The most famous example is possibly this piece by Yun Seondo:
- You ask how many friends I have? Water and stone, bamboo and pine.
- The moon rising over the eastern hill is a joyful comrade.
- Besides these five companions, what other pleasure should I ask?
Yun Seondo (1587-1671) also wrote a famous collection of forty sijo of the changing seasons through the eyes of a fisherman. Following is the first verse from the Spring sequence; Notice the added refrains in lines 2 and 4.
- Sun lights up the hill behind, mist rises on the channel ahead.
- Push the boat, push the boat!
- The night tide has gone out, the morning tide is coming in.
- Chigukch'ong, chigukch'ong, oshwa!
- Untamed flowers along the shore reach out to the far village.
Either narrative or thematic, this lyric verse introduces a situation or problem in line 1, development (called a turn) in line 2, and a strong conclusion beginning with a surprise (a twist) in line 3, which resolves tensions or questions raised by the other lines and provides a memorable ending.
- Where pure snow flakes melt
- Dark clouds gather threatening
- Where art the spring flowers abloom?
- A lonely figure lost in the shadow
- of sinking sun, I have no place to go.
- Yi Saek (1328-1395), on the decline of Goryeo Kingdom.
Korean poetry can be traced at least as far back as 17 BC with King Yuri's Song of Yellow Birds but its roots are in still earlier Chinese quatrains. Sijo, Korea's favorite poetic genre, is often traced to Confucian monks of the eleventh century, but its roots, too, are in those earlier forms. Its greatest flowering occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries under the Joseon Dynasty. The earliest poem of the sijo genre is from the 14th century:
- The spring breeze melted snow on the hills then quickly disappeared.
- I wish I could borrow it briefly to blow over my hair
- And melt away the aging frost forming now about my ears.
- U Tak (1262-1342)
Sijo is, first and foremost, a song. This lyric pattern gained popularity in royal courts amongst the yangban as a vehicle for religious or philosophical expression, but a parallel tradition arose among the commoners. Sijo were sung or chanted with musical accompaniment, and this tradition survives. The word originally referred only to the music, but it has come to be identified with the lyrics.
- 동지달 기나긴 밤을 한 허리를 버혀 내여
- 춘풍 이불 아래 서리허리 넣었다가
- 어른 님 오신 날 밤이여드란 구비구비 펴리라
- I will break the back of this long, midwinter night,
- Folding it double, cold beneath my spring quilt,
- That I may draw out the night, should my love return.
- Hwang Jin-i (1522-1565) The revered female Korean sijo poet, she was also a gisaeng, a professional female entertainer.
Note: With minor alterations, the material on this page is taken from TheWORDshop's pages on The Sijo. The English adaptations of verses by Yun Seondo and U Tak are by Larry Gross. Some of the information on the origins of sijo, and the English adaptation by David R. McCann of the verse by Hwang Jin-i, are taken from Kichung Kim's An Introduction to Classical Korean Literature: From Hyangga to P'ansori.
- An Introduction to Classical Korean Literature: From Hyangga to P'ansori by Kichung Kim.
- The Sijo
- The Fisherman's Calendar
- Sijo from the Masters
- Hwang Chini's most famous sijo
- Discussion forum for the sijo. Submit your own or comment on others.