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Posted by on May 23, 2009

Sijo (시조), Korean poetry

시조 (Sijo) is the Korean equivalent of haiku, although it is generally longer and much less rigid. I will spare you the exact details (3 lines, 14-16 syllables, 44-446 syllables overall, 4 parts, theme, counter-theme (maybe I won’t spare you the details (this reminds me of the way Salinger used to put the most important details in parenthesis (as in Seymour: An Introduction)))). And, like Koreans themselves, it can be extremely personal and playful; less concerned with conceit and more with emotional honesty. Here is an anonymous example from antiquity:

“Mind, I have a question for you – How is it you stay so young?
As the years pile up on my body, you too should grow old.
Oh, if I followed your lead, Mind, I would be run out of town.”

Fun and direct. I am taking this one from this site.

The most renowned female sijo poet is 황진이 Hwang Jini . She was a legendary 기생 (gisaeng) known for her beauty and wit. There have been several television series and movies based on her life, but what really draws me is the sijo. See the following as an example:

I will break the back of this long, midwinter night,
Folding it double, cold beneath my spring quilt,
That I may draw out the night, should my love return.

And the Korean, if one is interested:

동지달 기나긴 밤을 한 허리를 버혀 내여
춘풍 이불 아래 서리허리 넣었다가
어른 님 오신 날 밤이여드란 구비구비 펴리라

It is a nice balancing act of beauty (spring quilt, lover’s return) and violence (break the back of the long night). Needless to say, sijo, while accesible, was still the plaything of the yangbans, the aristocrats and royalty. Gisaengs like Hwang Jini, while revered, were still essentially slaves, only released from service to the government with a hefty ransom. I said hefty ransom because I have never heard of any other adjective that goes with ransom. It is always hefty.

Regardless, sijo is very accessible, not unlike Korea itself. It is also a nice view into the heart of Korean identity and emotionalism, that mix of heart and mind.

The images are of gisaeng and one of an old copy of a sijo, mostly included because I found the dog kind of amusing. Needless to say, gisaeng were chosen at a very young age, presumably like courtesans were chosen in Europe.

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