Sijo for Old Man Kim
By Allen Jones
He straddles the scroll with a brush the size of a broom.
Hold down the four corners!
With a single twisting stroke he rises up on his toes.
Set the final feather free!
Where a mess of stain should be, a perfect stork balancing.
Why You Should be Writing Sijo Rather than Haiku
Everyone knows the Japanese haiku. But what about the sijo, that improvised, witty, and yet deceptively melancholic poem born in Korea five hundred years ago.
Imagine having no written language for the poems you wished to write. This was the case when the sijo first became popular. These poems began as songs in 14th century Korea, at a time when Chinese was the country’s only written language; however, as soon as King Sejong gathered his advisors and invented the Korean alphabet, the governing scholar class (yangban) began composing thousands of sijo. Generals, prime ministers, kings, and even kisaeng (geisha), wrote these short, surprising verses. And remember, this was a time when power was distributed through official government tests that included a measure of your literary abilities. Your choice of poetic form could mean your livelihood.
The sijo has remained popular for half a millennium. Even quite recently you could hear fieldworkers tapping out these rhythms on their breaks, and if you started to recite a famous sijo, people in the street would apparently finish it for you (see Russ and Sege). Popular wallpaper was printed in verse, which meant that people’s houses were literally lined with the stuff. Even as recently as 2001, as a student of the language in Seogwipo, I was taught the basics of calligraphy through the daily chore of copying these short poems. My room was hung with thin rice-paper sheets stained with my imperfect brushstrokes. It was through this practice I met the master painter of my poem.
The form itself is simple and yet more flexible than the haiku with which America is so familiar. Here are the basics: three long lines (about fifteen syllables each) with a twist in the third line. What stands out to many readers is the way in which the long lines allow a more conversational and narrative approach than we associate with verse from “the East.” Haiku often seems to consist of three static images set before us on the page. Sijo feels much more connected, its tone and wit opening us up to the emotional power underlying that seemingly light exterior.
The fragmented imagistic lines of Japanese haiku or tanka attempt to deliver us to a direct and visceral experience, a sense of immediacy: three images unmediated by story or explicit connection. There is the tree, the pond, the sage drinking great quantities of sake (there is, coincidentally, a tradition of drinking sijo as well). Conversely, the sijo’s immediateness stems from its improvisorial nature. Originally, these verses were invented and riffed upon as they were sung, so a single sijo could have hundreds of variations. This meant that unlike classical Chinese poetry, traditional sijo cared little for how it appeared on the page. In fact, it didn’t appear on the page at all. While today we present these texts in an orderly fashion, often to emphasize the central pause (as below), the oral nature of the verse has always lived only for the ear. The writing of Bob Dylan, recent winner of the Nobel, is perhaps a good example of the reduction an aural form faces when shorn of its music.
I outlined the form above, but the best way to get a sense of these poems, especially if you want to try your own, is to experience the turn in the third line. Ikwhan Choe provides us with this famous anonymous sijo as an example:
I thought about that fan
and why you sent it to me…
You must have meant
to puff out the flame in my heart.
But my tears cannot quench it.
So what use will a fan be?
Notice the pause at the center of each line, the way the second line mirrors the first structurally, and the witty finale. Rutt points out how, despite this wit, the intense emotional energy we find in flamenco or fado (called duende or saudade respectively) often presents itself in the tone and singing style of traditional sijo. This is effected by drawing out a syllable so long that it becomes hard to understand, a words meaning stretched into pure emotion. The words joke but, like the blues, wit is a cover for tears.
One question is why the Japanese haiku grew to such prominence in the U.S. Some argue it was part of the post-WWII fascination with Japan: the tea ceremony, Zen Buddhism, etc. (see Serge). A few people have set about to change western ignorance of the sijo. Harvard professor David McCann recently organized a successful national competition and published an anthology of sijo in English. Regardless of whether or not sijo ends up on the next American Idol, these verses are fun, challenging, and very accessible when compared to other short forms. I recommend you write one immediately.
Note: some Koreans refer to this form as tanka (tan-ga).
References and Further Reading:
Choe, Ikhwan. “Form and Correspondence in the Sijo and the Sasol Sijo.” Korean Studies. 15. (1991): 67-82.
Rutt, Richard. “An Introduction to the Sijo.” Google Scholar. Accessed Oct. 30, 2016.
Sege, Irene. “The New Haiku?” Boston.com. Accessed Oct. 30, 2016.
Long ago, Allen spent a year on Jeju island. One afternoon, trying ludicrously to hike the entire coast, he heard what seemed birdcalls out in the surf. He turned to see Henya surfacing and signaling their safety to each other. It was otherworldly. He is presently a literature professor in Norway.