The Attempted Murder of Sijo Poetry

The Korean Tiger

I will go up into the Mountains and you shall not stop me."
I will go up into the Mountains and you shall not stop me."

Misinformation About Korean Sijo Poetry

Many sources on the internet have copied and proliferated information concerning the Traditional Sijo poetry of Korea and unfortunately, this information is categorically incorrect. Those that have spread this information likely have done so without understanding that what they have is incorrect and that they are adding to revisionist history instituted by other Asian cultures that have attempted to subdue North and South Korea ever since 2333 BC when the first Altai, Evenki, Oroqen, Sami and other indigenous peoples entered the Korean Peninsula to form a homeland.

Such misinformation about Korea adds to the revisionist history that has been written for the divided country beginning with the multiple occupations it endured during WWII and later in the Korean Conflict between the North and South. Korea, surrounded by other aggressive countries, has continually been attacked and its history shoved into a cave of censorship.

Inaccuracies were picked up and spread by some, others adding more misinformation and their own misunderstandings, until the history of any part of Korea was unrecognizable to its inhabitants and even its own governments. The arts and literature have suffered in the same way as the misquoted events of history.

Photo by Felice Beato, 1st Photagrapher of Korea. Some of 350 Korean dead in Japanese invasion, 1871. (public domain)
Photo by Felice Beato, 1st Photagrapher of Korea. Some of 350 Korean dead in Japanese invasion, 1871. (public domain)

Sijo and Fine Arts Went into Exile Many Times

During WWII, Grandmaster Sun Duk Ki, of the Tae Kyon martial art, was ordered by the Japanese to forsake his decades of teaching and to adopt Japanese styles only, under penalty of death. He stoutly refused, told the Japanese war officers that they could not force him to do this, and went up into the evergreen covered mountains of what is now South Korea and continued to practice Tae Kyon. He became a Living National Treasure of Korea and the current Tae Kyon head grandmaster is also a National Living Treasure. All successors to this position will become Living National Treasures, supported financially and certified by the government to protect and promote their art.

Dozens of arts and sciences have such Treasures. They are held in high esteem by the population at large and it is an honor to be accepted as one of their apprentices.

The before they were Treasures, the leaders of poetry and fine arts also went into exile in ancient and WWII Korea, often up into the misty pine mountains, in order to preserve their art forms from revision, censorship, and extinction.

Sijo is Unique

The Living National Treasures of Poetry continue to write and promote the styles of poems indigenous to Korea. One of these is Sijo and the traditional art form of the Living National Treasures is described below.

Sijo is not Haiku.

It is not like Haiku.

Sijo is so beautiful in the original language that it hurts. One is left powerless under its influence and one never forgets the emotions and physical sensations the original syllables bring forth. Some listeners and readers cry uncontrollably. Some of the concepts of poems are untranslatable and those that have read or heard cannot make another who does not understand Korean languages understand.

It requires a patient craftsman and that has months available to write in a precise pattern of words using only exact numbered of syllables. The effect of the written or spoken Sijo is breath taking and leaves the audience speechless. They are dumbstruck and then speak of the poem for months afterward. It is hypnotizing. It is mathematically perfect and the words make their own music. It is like the finest fractal pattern that has ever existed. It is like being inside a snowflake and to feel the crystal colors call out in their creation and to hear them sing as they take form around you in a miracle.

Sijo uses words of only certain syllable lengths (3, 4 and 5), so it is not like Haiku. Strictly speaking, it is difficult or impossible to write in English. However, I think a comic verse could be produced in English, with internal rhyme.

An Ancient Example

Sijo is written in a certain distinct number of prescribed syllables and holds a quirk or twist on the subject matter near the end of the poem. This is the fact that is left out of the material one finds on the internet in the 21st century. Sijo may evolve in Western countries, but it should then be called American Sijo, or Australian Sijo. Such poems may have a sort of capacity affect an audience deeply, but that impact will not be like that of Korean Sijo.

Sijo is structured and not at all free verse - written in three long lines that are very tightly woven. This is a rigid structure that induces the writer to pack meaning into each word and even into the sounds of each syllable.

There is a code for using the words and syllables of Sijo. There are 45 Hangul alphabet characters or in English, syllables total. The number 45 is optimum and considered perfect. Some of the ancient poets went so far as to stray from this rule, using 40 to 46 syllables, but were considered mavericks in doing so. Some of these poems, however, are very good.

  1. The syllables of a Sijo are written as 3, 4, 3, 4 or 3, 4, 4, 4 in the First Line. That means a word of 3 syllables followed by a word of 4 syllables, etc.
  2. The Second Line of Sijo has a syllable patter of 3, 4, 3, 4.
  3. The Third Line includes words of syllables 3, 5, 4, 3. It is around the 5-syllable word that a story twist evolves to startle the reader or induce an emotion. It is quite magical in effect.

My favorite poem from the Sijo tradition has been translated many ways and all are a bit off. I provide my own transliteration below, but my syllables in English cannot follow the Sijo code and only a portion of the meaning comes through. Please enjoy.

I will cut the middle from this long midwinter's night, placing it beneath

My quilt of springtime, rolling it softly, softly away for safekeeping.

The night my faraway lover returns, I will unroll it slowly to lengthen our first night.

Traditional Instrument

"Two-Swords Dance" in Competition

Traditional Dance

Traditional Drumming

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Comments 25 comments

gamergirl profile image

gamergirl 9 years ago from Antioch, TN

I agree, this style of poetry is very powerful. I've written a hub about the effects of poetry, too, I am glad you liked it. :P

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Abhinaya 9 years ago

Never heard of this Patty.Actually my information on Korea is very limited.I have seen Korean dances though(on TV).The Traditional Korean instruments are amazing.Thanks for the info.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 9 years ago from North America Author

Thanks to both of you! I don't know what is worse, telling people they cannot do their life's calling, or destroying pieces of fine art,as in the case of Korea and then the stolen art works during WWII all over Europe - works which are still being located and returned, 60 years later. Killing art or watering it down kills a nationality's soul and robs the world of beauty and truth.

Thanks for the comments!

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 9 years ago from North America Author

Oh thank you. I can't out the full impact into English. But a bit of it is there. I cannot forget this poem.

Uma Shankari profile image

Uma Shankari 9 years ago from Bangalore

Very interesting. And I can understand your angst when people misinterstand and misrepresent your culture.


Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 9 years ago from North America Author

Thank you Uma. I am about 1/2 native ameircan and in that way, related distantly to the Koreans. As a grandmaster of Korean martial arts, we must be able to perform music, poetry, and other arts.

Raven King profile image

Raven King 9 years ago from Cabin Fever

Which tribe? Lippan or Cherokee or Apache?

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 9 years ago from North America Author

Mohawk nation.

topstuff profile image

topstuff 9 years ago

Whatelse Sijos share other than poetry,you mean martial arts.i could not get a complete concept.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 9 years ago from North America Author

Hello topstuff; thank you for visiting and reading this Hub. Sijo is only the specific style of poetry I discussed. However, I am also pointing out that Korean culture has been forced to accept revisionist histories invented by the enemy's conquest several times. For example, immediately before and during WWII, Japanese occupation forces insisted that Korean poets of Sijo style, and all arts, including martial arts, sculpting, screen making, tassel tying, dancing, etc. stop doing Korean arts. Some Koreans artisits were captured and sent to Japan and given Japanese Names. Some were then sent to China to put them further away. Many came back to Korea.

pructus 8 years ago

Hi! Added to Patty’s translation of the most famous Korean poetess, Hwang Jini, I translated that myself. I will take a big cut From the long long winter night,Put it then coil by coil Under the good spring breeze’s bed, Spreading them bend by bendWhen my dearest comes to see me. How about this modern Sijo by famous modern Sijo poetess Yi Young-do.She is believed to have developed and upgraded modern Sijo. Translation is mine. Though I am Korean language native speaker, her Sijo are not that easy ones to understand, also to translate. Windy or rainy,Heaven is blue in my heart, A beautiful lone constellation, Rising and falling, A crane is long-necked To the pine wind’s distant melody. Passage of my dream, coming and going, As near by a thousand miles,Out the space of admiration,Coming nearer when he’s more away, My heart,Stealing opening those days,Consoling, comforting,

Is cold.

pructus 8 years ago

I posted 2 times by mistake….. As I didn’t know how to edit here…..It may be difficult to read….But enjoy the Korean Sijo, new and old.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

Thank you, pructus - The poems are lovely and thought provoking. It was generous of you to post them here and I shall read them often.

pructus 8 years ago

Hi! Can you read Korean language? Below is another translation of Yi Young-do, which is written to her daughter. Can you give me any advice on my translation..... For example, some part that can be improved. ###### Growing up// - to Jin-ah// Seeing you grow/As moon fattens by day,//

I feel faintest melancholy/

Rather than joy,// My wish was,/

Is rather empty now //

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

I can read a little of it, but it takes intense concentration and quiet atmosphere to get the sense of what is meant in the concepts that Americans can be able to understand.

"As the moon fattens by day" could be said in a number of different ways for transliteration - such as,

"As the moon shows her belly, growing more pregnant day by day" - this shows both physical growth and the maturing personality and potentials that will be shown in future by the daughter - a birth of newness and maturity of sorts.

Another possibility: The wispy edges of melancholy brush my face of joy, Pushing my happy wish into the void. 

All together:

Seeing you grow

As the moon shows her belly growing

More pregnant day by day

The wispy edges of melancholy brush my face of joy,

Pushing my happy wish into the void.

pructus 8 years ago

Thanks a lot……. <br> Your native speaker’s sense is of great help…. <br> I figure you have quite some literary talent. <br> I appreciate your comments and your own translation. <br> Could you make your translation more Sijo-like? <br> As you know, Sijo is basically syllable-number-rhymed. <br> The syllable number in Korean language is 3 -4 -3-4<br><3 -4 -3-4<br>3 -5 -4-3<br><br> But in English abiding by this syllable number must be hard work, so, it may be loosened by some degree. <br><br> The climax is Third line, first 3 syllables, 5 syllables. <br> So, it has to be either 3 lines, or splitting each into two, 6 lines. <br> Or, as some people do, 5 lines, making the first 3 syllables independent separate line, because it introduces climax, or twist. <br> Your translation may look a lovely poem written in English, not Sijo. <br><br> As moon shows her belly growing <br>More pregnant day by day ------- these two lines would be better in one line. <br> Pushing my happy wish into the void. --------- this part would be better in two lines. <br> My translation, “My wish was, Is rather empty now.”, also needs to be longer, which was difficult for me to do. <br><br><br> Below is original written in Korean. <br> ??<br> -????<br><br> ?? ? ???<br>???? ?? ??<br><br> ??? ????<br>???? ????<br><br> ???<br>??? ??<br>?? ?? ???. <br><br>

pructus 8 years ago

I tried to put in some html tag, but it didn’t work.Can you tell me how to adjust the line spaces.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

I'll think about this for a couple of days and list something here. What will you use the translation for, may I ask?

pructus 8 years ago

I am teaching English as a private tuitor, to middle school and high school students.

As a way of teaching English composition and grammar, I ask them to translate Sijo into English.

It’s not long that I happened to be interested in Sijo

Translation. But, I am trying to think out some way of making English Sijo look like Sijo.

I did some translations myself, and still doing.

As it’s very rare that English speakers are interested in Sijo, some native speaker’s sense of English would be of great guidance for my students and also for me.

However, it’s only for training English, and my students are in the course of learning grammar and composition, native speaker’s help couldn’t be a must.

Nonetheless, if my students are well versed in Sijo translation, when they go out into the global world, I think, it would be pretty good for them and also for some foreigners interested in Korean culture.


Kevin O’rourke made some impressive work translating Sijo,

looking like Sijo.

He put the first 3 syllables of third(in Korean original Sijo) line in separate line.

Example; His own creative Sijo:

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t recall

the Song poet’s lament for seventy years

of listening without understanding to the patter of spring rain in the river.

I listen on

hoping for the flash of that elusive harmonies of the heart.

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 8 years ago from North America Author

Ah yes, I have heard of Mr. O'Rourke. So, let me think about the syllables and words and I will post something for you.

Best wishes.

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philip carey 61 7 years ago

I've not heard of this genre of poetry. I have so much to learn. Thanks.

Astra Nomik profile image

Astra Nomik 6 years ago from Edge of Reality and Known Space

As a budding poet with my first poem up on my 2nd hub, I am always looking for inspiration. Imagine my surprise to discover a form of poetry I have never heard of from Korea! Marvelous! Glad I read this! Thank you!

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 6 years ago from North America Author

Sijo is still not well known in US, I think. It seems to be undergoing a change of format since I first heard of it in the 1980s (it' a very old style, though). Hope the genre inspires you all. Astra Nomik - I'll be reading your poem...

Ian Reclusado 3 years ago

Hi, if anyone is still watching the comments here! :)

I was really taken by the caption under the tiger image: "I will go up into the Mountains and you shall not stop me."

Is there more to this? Is it from another Sijo? I would love to know the rest...

Patty Inglish, MS profile image

Patty Inglish, MS 3 years ago from North America Author

Grandmaster Sun Duk Ki said words to this effect to the Japanese who ordered him to stop practicing and teaching Korean martial arts during the Japanese occupation. The Japanese soldiers really could not stop him. Up he went, with other Koreans following him, and stayed until the Japanese were gone.

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