Thursday, March 23, 2017

Carpe Diem Universal Jane #13 Sijo the Korean poem

Dear Haijin, visitors and travelers,

Welcome at a new weekend meditation this week I love to introduce through the work of Jane Reichhold the beauty of Sijo, the Korean poem. I found a wonderful article on Jane and Werner Reichhold's website AHA Poetry which I love to share here with you. As you all know I am still a big fan of Jane Reichhold and still miss her every day. That's the reason why I have created this special feature for CDHK. Jane has done a lot for us and for me. So in honor of this great poetess, the queen of haiku and tanka, and as it turns out also a big creator of Sijo.


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 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 swallow.
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 so young?
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.

© Anonymous

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 clouds.
Is it above the meadow and hill, perhaps below the sky?
Something sends a veil of mist, I cannot heed the drum.

© Anonymous

Oh that I might capture the essence of this deep midwinter night
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 not 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 cocoon?
Perhaps you recall spinning thread, a caterpillar's ungainly crawl?
If we can jog your memory, maybe there is hope for me.

© Jane Reichhold

Well this is a wonderful kind of poetry and I hope I have inspired you to try it yourself. Here is an attempt I once made to create Sijo:

Cherry trees blossoming for the very first time
spreading their branches, reaching for the sun
thunderstorms raging, fragile blossoms scattered

© Chèvrefeuille

As you all know this "weekend-meditation" is open for your submissions next Sunday, March 26th at 7.00 PM (CET) and will be open until March 31st at noon (CET). I will try to publish our new post, arise, around 7.00 PM (CET) next Sunday Match 26th.

Have fun!


  1. I love this Sijo form. I hope to do more ghazal and sijo forms.Challenging and fun. Thank you Kristjaan !

    1. It's a joy to introduce other forms at CDHK ... I like the Sijo and Ghazal a lot. I am not that great with those forms but I like a challenge.

  2. Thank you for another inspiring post Kristjaan - this form really speaks to me and I look forward to getting to know it better☺

    1. I love these "new" forms they are very different with haiku and tanka Maybe I have to do more of these posts on other forms.