New Poems from “The Ambassador of Sijo”: Urban Temple by David McCann

  • onNovember 8, 2014
  • Vol.5 Autumn 2009
  • byAnne B. Dalton
Urban Temple: sijo, twisted & straight

At Manhae Village

Mystified by the dark light
yet eager to try the drum,
the great bell, hollow wood fish,
bronze hammered plaque that calls the birds,
one by one, as the monk calls us
we step forward and begin


Master translator, scholar and above all poet, David McCann wrote his first sijo in Korean in 1966 while he lived in Andong as a Peace Corps volunteer. Now, after 40 years of living with the sijo tradition, studying Korean literature, and translating illustrious poets like Kim Ji-ha, Kim Sowol, Ko Un, and Cho Oh-hyun into English, McCann, a worthy inheritor of a distinguished Korean tradition, presents us with an ambitious, wide-ranging, and pioneering collection of his own work.

In poems that range from the political to the lyrical, Urban Temple celebrates the versatility of the sijo with astonishing dexterity. Like many Korean poets before him, McCann’s explorations of this traditional three-line form, favored by the great 16th century Korean poets such as Yulgok and Toegye, are rich with philosophical insight. McCann’s evocation of place, whether he is writing about Maine, Massachusetts, or Korea, recalls the sense of play and the sparse wonder of the renowned American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who was one of his teachers. Like Bishop, McCann also finds a profound opportunity for poetic achievement through the rigorous exploration of form. As the title suggests, Urban Temple is also infused with Buddhist themes and brings together poems of grief, longing, and reflection in an unsparing journey of loss and discovery characteristic of the Korean Seon poets.

McCann makes the best of sijo’s inherent flexibility and versatility. In his “straight” sijo he closely follows the orthodox Korean syllabic structure in English, while his “twisted” sijo are playful and often witty innovations that verge on the postmodern. Unlike haiku, a form that is routinely taught in American elementary schools, sijo is little known in the West. McCann’s collection will be the first introduction to sijo for many readers; his introductory essay and afterword in Urban Temple bring to life the rich history of sijo, while also explaining the central elements of the form. McCann provides fascinating and nuanced commentary on the poetry of Hwang Chini, among others.

David McCann has earned the name “The ambassador of sijo” for his educational outreach at places like the Bancroft School, and through such events as the recent international Harvard-Manhae Sijo Festival he organized at Harvard University in the spring of 2009. McCann’s poems have appeared in such distinguished journals as Poetry, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner. His recent collection of poems, The Way I Wait For You, was published in 2007. Winner of a Pushcart Prize for poetry, he has also been the recipient of numerous other prizes, grants, and fellowships including the Korean Cultural Order of Merit (2006), the prestigious Manhae Prize in Arts and Sciences (2004), and the Korea P.E.N. Center Translation Prize (1994). He is currently the Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Literature in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations as well as Director of the Korea Institute at Harvard University. 


* Anne B. Dalton is editor-in-chief of Bo-Leaf Books.