Thursday, November 23, 2006

The S(h)ijo

Maria Claudia Faverio headshot by Maria Claudia Faverio

There are two main poetry currents in Korea: the hansi tradition (poems in Chinese that follow the rules of Chinese metrics), and the vernacular tradition (poems to be sung and heard: hyangga, Koryo, kayo, kara, and what is known today as sijo/shijo).

The term shijo is a shortened version of shijolgajo ("popular seasonal song") and didn't become common until the 1920s, when it asserted itself as a means of national consciousness against Korea's status of subjugation, as "the breath of the Choson people" (Yom Sangsop). It was also meant as a dam against the flood of Western poetry that was starting to invade Korea.

Modern scholars tend to look for the sources of the sijo in the Korean musical tradition rather than seeing the sijo as a form that developed in the process of translating Chinese quatrains. This native origin theory is mainly based on the hyangga, various shamanistic songs, and the Koryo tan'ga.1

All these songs were not meant for literary, but rather for recreational purposes, they were supposed to cause a "tingling excitement" (hung), and were composed in vulgar speech (onmun). Their language is therefore simple and direct, often colloquial. At the same time though, the sijo reveals beauty of execution and follows precise rules.

The sijo poet tries to convey his own experiences, like friendship, love, wine, loyalty to the king, transience and old age. The sijo includes historical songs, political songs, drinking songs, moral songs, songs of loyalty, love songs, songs of solitude, music, mortality, nature, retirement and rustic life.

Many of these songs are anonymous (like our folksongs), and were and are sung by everybody everywhere, including shoeshine boys. Old people for example sing sijo in their backyards, slapping their knees with rhythmic blows to mark the tempo.

Taeypo and Pukchow are usually considered among the earliest melodies which are still played.

The sijo has three units (called chang): an opening chang, a middle chang, and a final chang, with 14-16 syllables in each chang, distributed according to the following pattern of syllables and breath groups:

chang 1 ku 2 ku 3 ku 4 ku
1st 3 (2-4) 4 (4-6) 4, 3 (2-5) 4 (4-6)
2nd 3 (1-4) 4 (3-6) 4, 3 (2-5) 4 (4-6)
3rd 3 (3) 5 (5-9) 4 (4-5) 3 (3-4)

This is the common structure of the ordinary sijo. However, there are three main variants: 1) the slightly expanded sijo, called ossijo; 2) the widely expanded sijo, called sasol sijo, used as a narrative form, and 3) the yon-sijo (linked poetry). These new forms were the idea of Yi Pyong-gi (the father of the modern sijo), who called the attention to the fact that the sijo should "convey the complexities of modern life by extending its structure, if necessary, from the conventional single stanza to two or more …."

There have been other attempts of modernization and reform. Yi Un-sang, for example, introduced the seven-line sijo, the yangjang sijo (two lines) and the tangjang sijo (one line), but these new forms have not been very successful.

The sijo uses a rhythm pattern which is common to all Korean writing, namely a 3-4 rhythm. In English, this rhythm pattern reminds somehow of Hopkins's sprung rhythm.

In the English language, sijo can be written (or translated from Korean) in three ways: 1) in three long lines with a breath in the middle of each line (each line representing a chang); 2) in six lines (the three long lines are divided at the breath point), or 3) in five lines, as supported by Kevin O'Rourke . The reason for O'Rourke's preference of the 5-line structure is that it corresponds to the five parts of the kagok-ch'ang, to which the original songs (kasa) were sung. The first and second lines correspond to the opening chang, the third (longer) to the middle chang, and the fourth (shorter) and fifth (longer) to the final chang. This structure also seems to convey a visual pattern similar to the original Korean one.

The opening chang is normally a general statement, it conveys an image, an idea.

Ride a horse through a field of flowers
and the scent lingers on the hoof.

The middle chang then develops the idea of the opening chang, often by introducing details or providing a specific context.

Enter a wine-spring tavern
and the smell of undrunk wine sticks fast.

The first ku of the final chang is the "twist", quite often just a conventional phrase, and serves as a contrast to the wit of the second part of the final chang.

All we did
was catch each other's eye; why then all the lies?

Another two examples of representative sijo:

A shadow is reflected in the water;
a monk is crossing the bridge.
Monk, stay a moment;
let me ask you where you' re going
Stick pointed at the clouds,
he passes without a backward glance.
Deep blue stream, don't boast so loud
of your passing through these green hills.
Though your way runs swiftly down to the sea,
there is no such easy return.
While the bright moon floods these lonely hills,
why not pause? Then go on, if you will.

Explicit metaphors or comparisons are rare in sijo (usually there is only one term), although they are more frequent than in haiku, where they are forbidden. Implicit metaphors are more widely used. Sometimes sijo also employ conceits as a means of expression, although these sijo are usually not among the best.

White heron, do not mock
the crow for being black.
Black outside,
is it black inside, too?
White outside,
black inside: that's really you.
This sijo, for example, is supposed to express the pangs of conscience felt by Yi Chik (1362-1431) for supporting the new Choson dynasty.

Another technique employed by sijo poets is symbolism, mainly drawing on Chinese tradition, e.g. trees, flowers, and birds. The willow branch for example symbolizes parting, the flower transience, the cuckoo unhappy love, the magpie good news.

Colours are also relevant. There is a clear predominance of green, blue, and white in sijo. These three colours seem to represent an ideal state, something desirable. In combination with other symbols, they can acquire other or additional meanings. Moonlight and whiteness combined, for example, symbolize loneliness.

Yun Sondo (1587-1671) is considered the greatest writer of sijo. He mainly wrote sijo focussed on the countryside and on morality.

Here is one of his famous sijo:

You ask how many friends I have?
Water and stone, bamboo and pine.
The moon rising over the eastern hill
is a joyful comrade.
Besides these five companions,
what other pleasure should I ask?

All the greatest sijo masters wrote in the 16th and the early 17th centuries, the time of the Renaissance in Western culture, like Yi Hwang (1501-1570) and Hwan Chin-I (1522-1565), the most famous female poet of that time, besides of course the already mentioned Yun Sondo.

To conclude this article, I would like to introduce two examples of sijo by contemporary authors and an example of an extended sijo:

In the Grass2 (Chi Song-Chan, b. 1942)

I become the grass
where my lovely Suntee runs at play.
The more she treads it
the greener it grows.
Suddenly she flares,
a red flower.

Snowy Period (Song Son-Yong, b. 1939)

Here is a bird that carries dusk home
after roving the wind-swept fields.
This is a bird that returns
driving firelights onto the dark yard.
Here is a bird that pecks at my memory
brooding on the camellia of my heart.

The Cricket (Pak Kyong-Yong, b. 1940)

Flowing out and over
the moonlight submerges the world below.
Your cry calling your mate
echoes faintly in the air.
How will you cross the evening sky,
a thousand miles of night road,
ten thousand miles of water road?

Your grief anchored at the ferrypoint
where lamentations gleam and glimmer,
I sorrow over your spirit that spins
like a length of thread. O cricket,
both of us cry for our mates,
though an impassable river separates us.


O'Rourke K., The book of Korean Shijo, 2002 Harvard University Asia Center

McCann D.R., Form and Freedom in Korean Poetry, 1988 E.J. Brill

Rutt R., The Bamboo Grove, 1971 University of California Press

Jaihiun K., Modern Korean Verse in Sijo Form, 1997 Ronsdale Press

Jaihuin K., Classical Korean Poetry, 1994 Asian Humanities Press, California

POEM - by Marie Faverio

Morning impressions

Sitting here at dawn,
under a colour-crazy sky
spilling visions
over angularities,
I try to discern
some godly utterance
that may give sense
to my life,
an incipient sound or form
gravid with in-fieris.

The dark's collapse
bails out the nimble-winged possibilities
of the uncertain,
making room for unwalled horizons -
scary sometimes -,
among birds exploding
into unrestrained impromptus.

The gulls are less excited.
They don't screech
like during the day.
They smear the sky
with muffled wings,
splitting brimfuls of colours.

People are already jogging
along Sri Chinmoy's Peace Path
before facing another busy day
in the City.

I'm just waiting for more light
to write a new poem.

1 There are only a few facts we can rely on as to the origin of the sijo, for example:

  • There is no classical record that makes reference to the sijo in the present 3-chang form;

  • There are less than 20 songs that date to Koryo, all included in the great sijo anthologies (dating from the 18th century);

  • A great variety of short songs from early Choson are also recorded, but they are not called sijo;

  • Before the 15the century, all songs in Korea were either recorded in Chinese or passed on orally. It was during the reign of Sejong that the han'gul was invented;

  • There are various songs recorded in Chinese, han'gul, or a mixture of both in anthologies and private munjip, but again they are not called sijo;

  • The songs can either be sung to a kagok-ch'ang or to a shijo-ch'ang. The second form is much easier in its structure and can also be easily tapped. For this reason, it gradually replaced the kagok-ch'ang by the end of the 1920s;

  • The shijo-ch'ang also seems to be the basis for the 3-chang structure that is used in our days.

2 Titles are usually avoided in sijo, but are used in Jaihiun's excellent collection of modern Korean verse..

No comments: