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Sijo: an introduction

I first learned about the Korean poetry form known as the sijo (pronounced SHE-jo) in 2007, when Linda Sue Park published her collection, Tap Dancing on the Roof: (Sijo Poems). You can read more about about that book here.

The sijo is one of the few poetic forms with a long, venerable history of successful female poets. This particular form of poetry dates back thousands of years, predating haiku/hokku in Japan, and is based on an ancient Korean song form. The poems are only three lines long, but they spin out in an unhurried fashion, as you can see in the example below. N.B. If you are familiar with Anglo-Saxon poetry (such as was used in Beowulf), this form will be much simpler to wrap your head around, since it relies on caesuras within each line.

One of the most famous female sijo poets was Hwang Jini (sometimes rendered as Hwang Chin'i), who wrote using the name Myongwol, meaning Bright Moon, a kisaeng (a type of courtesan, similar to the Japanese geisha), who wrote the following (among many other) sijo. That is a portrait of her to the right. I offer two translations of her poem - I really love the violent determination in the first, but appreciate the tenderness (and possible self-reference with the word "moon") in the second:

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.

(David R. McCann)


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.

(Larry Gross)

Tomorrow, I'll start to look at the requirements for writing sijo.

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 15th, 2016 04:58 pm (UTC)
I love the violence of "break the back" so hard. But the sweetness of the second translation also appeals to me. I'm guessing it's contextually based, but it does seem odd that they can be SO different.
Mary Lee Hahn
Apr. 17th, 2016 12:38 pm (UTC)
How ironic that the form is pronounced SHE-go and has "a long, venerable history of successful FEMALE poets." !!!
Apr. 17th, 2016 02:28 pm (UTC)
Just watch her go!!
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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