We stand in awe if a speaker gives a speech that is brief but deeply meaningful. It goes without saying that we feel the same when the pinnacle of expression is achieved in poetry, where thought and feeling are compressed to the greatest possible extent and delivered in cadences. Writers of classical Korean literature were particularly skilled at expressing profound sentiment in short poems. These poems included four- and eight-line classical Chinese verse, and also sijo, a form limited to only three verses, that is, three lines. These writers incorporated the principles of nature and the universe as well as the laws of the secular world into these short works, leaving them for posterity. Let us look at one of the numerous sijo that adorn the halls of Korean literary history, a poem written by Yi Cho-nyon (1269-1343), a writer who lived during the Goryeo dynasty.
The moon is white on pear blossoms and the Milky Way tells the third watch.
A cuckoo would not know the intent of a branch of spring.
Too much awareness is a sickness, it keeps me awake all night.1
This is a night when even the moonlight gleams white on the pear blossoms, and the Milky Way tells us the night is deep. “A cuckoo would not know the intent of a branch of spring”—but the poet’s heightened feeling is like a sickness and he cannot fall asleep. The scene takes place in the middle of the night one spring. This poem conveys the sorrowful beauty of the scenery and the fluttering of the poet’s heart. It is as if the flow of lyricism that is sensitive to these details can also bathe the spirit clean. Well-known modern poet Cho Jihun borrowed the last line from this sijo and used it in the ending of his poem “Wanhwasam (The Scholar Who Loved Flowers).” The line reads: “A mind aware is a sickness, and [the man] trembles quietly under the light of the moon as he walks.”
The poems of a Joseon dynasty gisaeng (courtesan) named Hwang Jini appear in Cheonggu Yeongeon, the oldest anthology of sijo. Her work is superb, transcending the limits of time as well as those imposed by her low social status. That this gisaeng had such remarkable ability, with many of her poems ranking on par with those of high-born classical scholars, is in part due to the neither long nor complicated form of the sijo. And yet, clearly it is difficult to write short, simple poems or pieces of writing that are deeply meaningful. Broadening the scope of our discussion a little, the fundamental teachings in religious scriptures that guide human beings along the road to eternal life are neither difficult nor complex.
In central Seoul, at the main intersection by Gwanghwamun Gate, a company that owns a tall office building set up an oversize bulletin board on the wall outside. For twenty-five years, as an act of public service, the company has selected either individual lines of poems or the full text of short poems each new season for posting on what is known as the “Gwanghwamun poetry signboard.” This famous outdoor exhibition of illustrated verse has refreshed the landscape downtown and provided an enjoyable diversion for the one million people that cross the street there every day. Last year, on the twenty-fifth year of this campaign, a poll was taken of the hundred poems that have been posted to date, and Na Tae-joo’s “Wildflower” was chosen to be number one.
Beautiful when you look closely
Lovable when you look for a long time
You’re like that, too.