The spring breeze melted snow on the hills then
I wish I could borrow it briefly to blow over my hair
And melt away the aging frost forming now about my ears.
...U T'ak (1262-1342, author of this oldest surviving sijo)
More ancient than haiku, the Korean SIJO shares a common ancestry with haiku, tanka and similar Japanese genres. All evolved from more ancient Chinese patterns.
Sijo is traditionally composed in three lines of 14-16 syllables each, totaling between 44-46 syllables. A pause breaks each line approximately in the middle; it resembles a caesura but is not based on metrics.
My body, in its withering, may become a lovely
Under the eaves of my loved one's home I'll build my nest of twigs.
After dusk I'll fly aloft and glide gently to his side.
. . . Anonymous
Mind, I have a question for you - How is it you stay
As the years pile up on my body, you too should grow old.
Oh, if I followed your lead, Mind, I would be run out of town.
Each half-line contains 6-9 syllables; the last half of the final line is often shorter than the rest, but should contain no fewer than 5.
A drum beats in the far temple; I think it's in the
Is it above the meadow and hill, perhaps below the sky?
Something sends a veil of mist, I cannot heed the drum.
Oh that I might capture the essence of this deep
And fold it softly into the waft of a spring-moon quilt
Then fondly uncoil it the night my beloved returns.
...Hwang Chin-i (1522-1565) most revered female Korean classical poet
The sijo may be narrative or thematic, introducing a situation or problem in line 1, development or "turn" in line 2, and resolution in line 3. The first half of the final line employs a "twist": a surprise of meaning, sound, tone or other device. The sijo is often more lyrical, subjective and personal than haiku, and the final line can take a profound, witty, humorous or proverbial turn. Like haiku, sijo has a strong basis in nature, but, unlike that genre, it frequently employs metaphors, symbols, puns, allusions and similar word play.
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?
...Yon Son-do (1587-1671)
Printing restrictions often cause Western sijo to be divided at the natural break and printed in 6 lines. Some translators and poets have adopted this technique, so modern sijo may appear in either 3 or 6 lines;
Under our oak the grass withers,
so we plant petunias;
We water them, we coddle them,
burn their youth with chemicals.
Digesting their timely death,
the oak renews our summer shade.
Because it was meant to be sung, and because of the nature Hangul (the Korean script), the structure of sijo often resembles biblical phrases. In English, it may resemble Hopkins' sprung rhythm. To achieve this phrasal quality, each long line, once divided, is divided again, into quarters averaging 3 - 5 syllables, as indicated by the slashes:
Without the pines / the wind is silent;
without wind / the pines are still;
Without you / my heart is voiceless,
without that voice / my heart is dead.
What potent power / of yang and yin
pairs us / before we sleep?
Though quarter lines are seldom divided so obviously, a discernible (even if slight) pause is usually evident. Sijo may be highly repetitive. Phrases may be repeated or echoed, a trait revealing the sijo's heritage to be sung or chanted. Meter is not vital, but that musical link should no be overlooked.
The 6-line form was preferred by William Kim (Unsong) in his translation of 100 classical sijo (Poet, An International Monthly, March, 1986). Kim experimentally employed end rhyme and broke the verse into three separate couplets, two conventions not usually used by other translators. Take care in using such devices. They can result in a poem that looks, sounds and acts so Western that it obscures its unique heritage. I have written both 3-line and 6-line patterns, but usually prefer the former when format allows. Poets are always free to make choices, but Elizabeth St Jacques, a leader in the sijo movement, offers good advice: never lose sight of the three characteristics that make sijo unique: basic structure, musical/rhythmic elements, and the twist.
Let me ask you, butterfly, do you remember your
Perhaps you recall spinning thread, a caterpillar's ungainly crawl?
If we can jog your memory, maybe there is hope for me.
RESOURCES AND LINKS
SIJO WEST by Larry Gross
SIJO BLOSSOMS by Elizabeth St. Jacques
Paper Lanterns by Debi Bender
Larry Gross now a sijo seminar at egroups.
Additional material on the Korean Sijo by John Craven .
The Florida State Poets Association includes a sijo category in its contests. For guidelines send an SASE to Donna Dickey Guyer, 1508 22nd Ave SW, Boynton Beach, FL 33426.
Sijo Contest at Arizona State Poetry Society guidelines can be obtained from Genevieve Sargent, 1707 N. Sunset Dr., Tempe, AZ 85281.
Portions of this article appeared in HWUP! #7 (May 92) & #29 (Jun-July 94). Adaptations & original sijo by Larry Gross. Copyright © 1995 by Larry Gross.