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[Inkstone] The Revitalization of Sijo

  • onMarch 27, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byDavid McCann

Invitation to Sijo

I taught Korean literature, including the sijo, for a number of years. I read and translated sijo, and listened to sung performances of it by professional singers as well as enthusiastic amateurs. One of the high points for me in my Writing Asian Poetry class was the moment when the teaching assistant, trained as a sijo and pansori singer, ended her performance of the sijo, then said to the class, “Ok, now it is your turn.” They gasped in apprehensive imagining, but then were led through the first line to finish with a real sense of accomplishment beyond reading English translations.

A number of factors led me finally to try writing sijo in English, but the principal motivator was the number of haiku written in English that I had seen and read over the years. It occurred to me that the students who learned how to write haiku in fourth grade in schools in the US probably then developed a sense of familiarity about other examples of Japanese literature that Korean literature in translation was lacking. Conversations with students who had gone to school in the States, remembering their “haiku days,” brought me to wonder if something similar might happen with the sijo.

 

Early Example

The sijo’s origins are not clear in a formal sense, since the Korean alphabet was invented in the fifteenth century, while many sijo are said to predate it. For example, a very well-known sijo by Jeong Mongju (1337-1392) states his strongly-felt devotion to the Goryeo dynasty, against the Yi faction about to topple it.

 

Though this body die

and die and die again,

White bones become but dust,

a soul exist, then not,

Still this single-hearted devotion to my lord:

how could it waver, ever?1

 

The story about Jeong Mongju’s sijo, that he recited his sijo poem at a banquet, in response to a verse challenge from one of the sons of the founder of the new dynasty, is dated to 1392, when Goryeo fell and Jeong was killed by the Yi followers. It wasn’t until half a century later that the fourth Yi king, Sejong, promulgated the Korean alphabet, hangeul, so the ascription remains uncertain for a sijo text attributed to a statesman killed before the alphabet was invented and any history—or poetic text—was written down. And while the story about the sijo and its origins has Jeong killed at a banquet hosted by one of the Yi family, the official dynastic history compiled under the new dynasty’s rule gives a thoroughly different story of Jeong’s life and death with no mention at all of either the banquet or the poem. What seems most striking is the poem's strength as poetic statement, whatever historical uncertainties there may be regarding its provenance.

 

Structure

The sijo’s form compresses the rhetorical features of the Classical Chinese quatrain—presentation, development, then a twist, and a conclusion or resolution—into three lines, toward something like the brevity of the Japanese haiku. Each line of the sijo is in two parts, each part in turn being a two-part phrase or clause. Syllable count is a significant feature of the sijo: 3 4 3 (or 4) 4 syllables for the four parts in lines one and two, and then 3 5 4 3 in the final line. Syllable count is not as strict as in the Japanese haiku, which tends pretty much toward seventeen syllables, nor the unvarying five- or seven-syllable lines of Chinese classical poetry. Yet while there is some range in syllable counts, there is also a strong tendency toward regularity at the ends of lines one and two, with four syllables, and in the 3-syllable first group of line three, the expanded five (or more) syllables in the second group of that line, and then 4 and 3 to end it. One might say there is greater regularity in syllable count where the line and sense of the poem need to stabilize themselves in order to make a shift, either from line to line, or through the rhetorical twist.

The twist at the start of line three is a key rhetorical feature of the sijo, but just what is a sijo twist? Two examples by the famous kisaeng woman poet Hwang Jini (sixteenth century) might help. The first is said to be her response to some official scholar-type who boasted of his indifference to her famous wit and charm.

 

Jade Green Stream, don’t boast so proud

of your easy passing through these blue hills.

Once you have reached the broad sea,

to return again will be hard.

While the Bright Moon fills these empty hills,

why not pause? Then go on, if you will.2

 

The playful brilliance of this sijo lies in the identity of the sounds for the phrase “Jade Green Stream”—Byeok gye su—and the official office title of the boastful fellow. Hwang Jini’s poetic name, her sobriquet, Bright Moon, provides the twist for the poem, reversing its seemingly steady movement toward the sea.

 

Another example of Hwang Jini’s sijo uses the tumbling burst of a run-on line, extremely rare in sijo practice, to move from the second to the final line in an enactment of the impetuousness of her action. The twist in this sijo is the speaker’s discovery, at the beginning of line three, of just what she has done: she sent him away!

 

Alas! What have I done?

Knew I not just what yearning was?

Had I bid him Stay,

How could he have gone, but stubborn

I sent him away, and such longing

I now learn.3

 

Sijo in the 21st Century

The revitalization of the sijo form and practice seems to be everywhere these days. There are a number and variety of sijo journals and groups in Korea, some following quite strict adherence to the classical form, others exploring variations in form and subject, page layout, and presentation. Tap Dancing on the Roof is a delightful English-language children’s book of sijo poems and illustrations. Wayne de Fremery, at Sogang University, has started up a new English-language sijo journal, Sijo: An International Journal of Poetry and Song, now moving into its second annual edition. The Busan International Literary Festival in 2018 hosted a number of activities focusing on the sijo, and I was delighted to accept their invitation to offer reflections on the form and its practice, including my own ukulele-accompanied version of Hwang Jini’s sijo poem about the stream. And let us hope that the K-Pop scene will keep bringing it on as well!

 
1. David R. McCann, Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions, Columbia University Press, 2000, page 32.
2. Early Korean Literature, p. 150.
3. For a slightly different version, see Early Korean Literature, p. 55.

 

David McCann
Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature,
Emeritus, Harvard University