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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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About Author

My name is Michael Sean Gallagher. I am a Lecturer in Digital Education at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh. I am Co-Founder and Director of Panoply Digital, a consultancy dedicated to ICT and mobile for development (M4D); we have worked with USAID, GSMA, UN Habitat, Cambridge University and more on education and development projects. I was a researcher on the Near Futures Teaching project, a project that explores how teaching at The University of Edinburgh unfold over the coming decades, as technology, social trends, patterns of mobility, new methods and new media continue to shift what it means to be at university. Previously, I was the Research Associate on the NERC, ESRC, and AHRC Global Challenges Research Fund sponsored GCRF Research for Emergency Aftershock Forecasting (REAR) project. I was an Assistant Professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (한국외국어대학교) in Seoul, Korea. I have also completed a doctorate at University College London (formerly the independent Institute of Education, University of London) on mobile learning in the humanities in Korea.

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