Sijo is a purely Korean poetic form. Bucolic, metaphysical and cosmological themes are often explored. The three lines average 14-16 syllables, for a total of 44-46: theme (3, 4,4,4); elaboration (3,4,4,4); counter-theme (3,5) and completion (4,3) [Ibid., Rutt, pp. 10 ff]. Sijo may be narrative or thematic and introduces a situation in line 1, development in line 2, and twist and conclusion in line 3. The first half of the final line employs a “twist”: a surprise of meaning, sound, or other device. Sijo is often more lyrical and personal than other East Asian poetic forms, and the final line can take a profound turn. Yet, “The conclusion of sijo is seldom epigrammatic or witty. A witty close to a sentence would have been foreign to the genius of stylized Korean diction in the great sijo periods. ” (op. cit., Rutt, p. 12)
|Old Korean||Modern Korean||Translation|
|내버디 멋치나 ᄒᆞ니 수석과 송죽이라||나의 벗이 몇인가 헤아려 보니 수석과 송죽이라.||You ask how many friends I have? Water and stone, bamboo and pine.|
|동산의 ᄃᆞᆯ오르니 긔더옥 반갑고야||동산에 달이 밝게 떠오르니 그것은 더욱 반가운 일이로다||The moon rising over the eastern hill is a joyful comrade.|
|두어라 이다ᄉᆞᆺ밧긔 또더ᄒᆞ야 머엇ᄒᆞ리||나머지는 그냥 두어라. 이 다섯 외에 더 있으면 무엇하겠는가?||Besides these five companions, what other pleasure should I ask?|
Yun Seondo 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.
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.
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 earlier Korean culture (op. cit., Rutt, 1998, "Introduction"). 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. One of its peaks occurred as late as the 16th and 17th centuries under the Joseon Dynasty. One poem of the sijo genre is from the 14th century:
- 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.
Note: The English adaptations of verses by Yun Seondo and U Tak are by Larry Gross (op. cit.) The English adaptation of the verse by Hwang Jin-i is by David R. McCann (op. cit.); Some of the information on the origins of sijo are cited from The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction to Sijo, ed. Richard Rutt (U. of Michigan Press, 1998); Kichung Kim's An Introduction to Classical Korean Literature: From Hyangga to P'ansori'; and Peter H. Lee.
In 1986 the journal Poet dedicated an entire issue to "classic" Korean sijo translated into English by Korean-American Kim Unsong (a.k.a. William Kim). This was followed by Kim's Classical Korean Poems (Sijo) in 1987, and Sijo By Korean Poets in China and Poems of Modern Sijo (a collection of his originals) in the mid 1990's. These poems found a devoted audience in American theWORDshop publisher Dr. Larry Gross and Canadian haiku poet Elizabeth St. Jacques. As a result, a volume of original English-language sijo (Around the Tree of Light) by St. Jacques appeared in 1995. Soon after, Gross launched the first issue of Sijo West with St. Jacques as assistant editor. It was the world's first poetry journal dedicated to the English-language sijo, and soon caught on rather well with English-language poets dedicated to haiku and other forms of Asian verse.
Since then, unfortunately, Sijo West has folded (in 1999, after five ground-breaking issues); reportedly, due to health problems and tragedies undergone by Gross. Shortly after, St. Jacques reemerged with a series of online postings known as Sijo Blossoms (circa 2001), which, apparently, has since evolved into the Sijo In The Light section of her Poetry In The Light website. Sijo In The Light, like the defunct Sijo West, features original English-language sijo, as well as essays and reviews. Gross, meanwhile, has maintained a significant presence for sijo in his website Poetry in theWORDshop, which includes translations from Korean masters as well as original contributions by contemporary poets. Gross also moderates a Yahoo! discussion group, sijoforum.
In 2005, R. W. Watkins,creator of the seminal English-language Contemporary Ghazals, published a low budget "one-off" issue of Contemporary Sijo. Watkins has described it as his interpretation of where Sijo West might have gone, and insists that he might produce sequels in the future as submissions of English-language sijo, translations of classics, reviews and essays materialize. Watkins, it should be noted, created some controversy in 1999 when he published (in the now-defunct Lynx) an essay, co-written with Rynn Jacobs (whose poems have been described as "so modern they border on 'punk sijo' "), criticizing the weaknesses and pitfalls of the six-line sijo. The essay was reprinted in his Contemporary Sijo, with and an essay by Elizabeth St. Jacques that can be found at her aforementioned website.
In addition to Kim, Gross, St. Jacques, Watkins and Jacobs, others who have written sijos in English in fair quantities include Hortensia Anderson, Eve Jeanette Blohm, Marjorie Buettner, Marcyn Del Clements, Dina Cox, Gene Doty, Lesley Einer, Yvonne Myers, and Ronan, among others.
Patrick Allen Wright, while living and teaching English in Korea, offers this slightly tighter than average versed sijo as an observation of the Cherry Blossom Festival: