Sijo is a traditional Korean form of poetry that dates back centuries and is still popular today. It is composed of three lines of 14-16 syllables each, and often has a theme of nature, love, or humor. The structure of sijo is highly formulaic, with the first line often introducing a situation or imagery, the second line providing a twist or unexpected turn of events, and the third line providing insight or a resolution. It can be useful to think of it as a 3 line, 3 act poem. The presentation of the Sijo varies, some are broken up into 6 lines.
Famous Sijo Examples
A shadow strikes the water below:
a monk passes by on the bridge,
“Stay awhile, reverend sir,
let me ask you where you go.”
He just points his staff at the white clouds
and keeps on his way without turning.
— Chung Chul (1536-1593)
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.
— Hwang Chin-I (1506-1544)
If everyone were a government official,
would there be any farmers?
If doctors cured all disease,
would graveyards be as they are?
Boy, fill the glass to the brim;
I’ll live my life as I please.
— Kim Chang-Up (1658-1721)
The spring breeze melted snow on the hills, then quickly disappeared.
I wish I could borrow it briefly to blow over my hair
and melt away the aging frost forming now about my ears.
— U Tak (1262-1342)
Soaring high though a mountain may be,
it is a mere mound beneath Heaven
Climb and climb,
and no summit cannot be reached
Yet people stay at its base
saying the mountain is too high.
— Yang Sa Eun (1517-1584)
Rules of Sijo
- It is a poem of 3 lines
- Each line has 14-16 syllables
- Line 1 introduces a situation or problem
- Line 2 develops line 1
- Line 3 involves a twist, which resolves tensions or questions raised in lines 1 and 2
Sijo And Haiku
At first glance, the Korean sijo closely resembles the traditional Japanese haiku. Like a haiku, the sijo follows a 3 line structure, but its form is more complicated, less rigid, and longer. Sijo is a great poetic form to learn after the haiku because it introduces slightly more of a challenge.