The Attempted Murder of Sijo Poetry
The Korean Tiger
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.
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.
- 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.
- The Second Line of Sijo has a syllable patter of 3, 4, 3, 4.
- 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.