Reverie Eighteen: singing the world

Since it’s Cinco de Mayo, for this installment of Reveries (which once again treats with world poetry), I feel as though I should have looked for some kind of Mexican poetry form. But it seemed a little bit tacky to do that, and anyway, I already had something in mind for today. The usual caveats apply about me being a whitey from the East Coast of the US, so please take everything that follows with a grain of salt. That being said, let’s jump in…

This week: “singing the world

Whenever I see a new poetry form start cropping up, I feel the need to research it a bit; passing them around by word of mouth seems to corrupt them until they just become a collection of syllable counts. (One of these days I’ll get to haiku.) Lately, the sijo seems to have found some clout again; I don’t know that it ever really fell out of favor in Korea, but it’s certainly being re-discovered in the circles I travel in. So that’s what we’ll discuss today. (And really, I think these are getting too easy… remember when I asked you guys to do Welsh poetry? I mean, few were brave enough to do it, but that was the difficult stuff. ^_^)

Let’s clear something up right away: to call a sijo the “Korean haiku” is a simplification that ignores the history and culture of the sijo. It was originally a courtly song in medieval Korea, often done with musical accompaniment (unlike, to my knowledge, the haiku). The subject matter does incorporate natural themes and images, but also expands them into something like a fable, with meditative themes mixed in. Haiku do this as well, but doesn’t give you any guidance (mostly because there aren’t enough lines); they only draw out the circle which you can fill with your own meditations, while sijo have more room to be pointed with their lessons. And finally, sijo can be more flexible with language and voice. While a haiku often consists of images placed against one another, allowing the reader to stand between them to see what they can see, the sijo poet can express more of their personality, as well as use metaphors and wordplay.

Cribbing this one from the Internet, because I think it’s one of my favorite examples of the form:

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.

That’s by Hwang Jin-i (translated), who wrote in the 1500s. She was pretty cool! Another dissimilarity with haiku, beyond the equal focus on the sound of the language, is that you don’t have to confine yourself to one season, although she does here. The images can also be symbolic, abstract, and personified: breaking the back of a night is a pretty awesome one.

Let’s talk a bit about structure. Although the sijo doesn’t have the kireji of a haiku (the “cutting word”), you still need to have development. There are two ways to go about it, depending on whether you’re telling a story or simply describing/reacting to a scene. The first line will be your exposition: explain the problem you face, or simply paint the location we’re in. The second line expands on the first, complicating the action or forming a bridge between the situation and its conclusion. And the third, final line, has two parts: a resolution to the problem (whether it can be achieved or not), and a twist or surprise that functions (like the kireji) to stun the reader a bit, a “wow, I didn’t think it would go there” kind of thing.

Re-examining the example above with this in mind…

I will break the back of this long, midwinter night,
(set during a winter night; night is personified; the narrator wants to overcome it)

folding it double, cold beneath my spring quilt,
(she then wants to save it; this night is tangible like fabric; contrasts with spring)

that I may draw out the night, should my love return.
(she wants to keep it for later; wants to have more time with an absent love; who may or may not return, possibly in the spring?)

You can see that raw emotion in the beginning, and that powerful imagery; followed by a curious set of actions; which lead to the surprise of her motive, and the sudden heartsick wish at the end. Beautiful!

And of course we should talk about syllables. There’s no meter or rhyme, though (again, unlike haiku) some elements of either would not be unwelcome, to reflect the musical background of the form. Each line should have around 14 to 16 syllables, and the poem should have around 44 to 46 total; err towards the middle of those ranges, or confound them a bit if you wish. My opinion of the musical aspect is that a bit of iambic business would be a nice touch, and maybe some kind of thematic division of the lines into halves. Do what works for you, though.

Note that the final line should be pretty evenly split, syllable-wise, between the twist that turns the apparent theme from the beginning on its head, and the very end of the poem that creates a sudden, new, profound emotion. I used to teach essay-writing for the SAT, and I told students that one of the most powerful tools they could use was to have their last sentence be a parting thought that took everything they just wrote about and launched it into the world outside the (admittedly paltry, pretty useless) SAT essay. That’s the same kind of effect you want to have on your reader with the last few words/seven syllables or whatever.

Now is the part of the show where, of course, I do my best to write one of these things:

Young pansies, velvet, white gold, have pushed up in search of rain
among the patio’s square of weeds: I wish someone had whispered,
before my idle gardening choked them, “everything just wants to live.” 

(Don’t worry, I didn’t actually kill them. I was thinking about going out to weed our little 3×3 patch of dirt among the cement, and stopped when I saw the flowers. Let ’em grow, I say. Meanwhile, I did my best to get some “p” and “w” sounds in there, tried to have it lilt a little bit with its meter, and hope that some of the emotion comes through.)

Hopefully this will all be a good jumping-off point for you to do some sijo work of your own.  I recommend the site as another source for links, ideas, thoughts, and examples; there are books and journals out there, but I’m not entirely sure where to find them, since apparently they had their heyday in the 90s. While I’m talking about this, I want to recommend the Korean film, “Poetry” (or “Shi” in Korean), which is spectacular and, in many ways, about everything but. Happy writing, and do come back to share your results.

NaPoWriMo is over, and we can all breathe and prompt-write again. Whew.

12 thoughts on “Reverie Eighteen: singing the world

  1. margo roby says:

    Nice. I adore sijo, while not yet having written one. I haven’t found a Korean poem in translation I don’t like and wish there were more outb there.

  2. b_y says:

    Don’t know. Did I get it? or am I still out in the forest with the fox and the golden hind snickering at my misfortunes.

  3. You made me want to give the sijo another try.

    By the way, the film “Poetry” has been sitting in my Netflix instant queue for months, along with several other Korean dramas. Thanks to your recommendation, I’m finally going to watch it. :)

  4. Joseph, this is a prompt I will try. I have been kind of burnt since napo.
    No more excuses, eh?


  5. […] his Reverie this week, Joseph Harker prompts us for a Sijo. Above is my attempt. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to […]

  6. clawfish says:

    I did my first Sijo in January this was the result

  7. […] Harker gives us Reverie Eighteen: Singing the World, which introduces us to an unusual and lovely form, the sijo. Go on over to read the whole, because […]

  8. […]  Reverie Eighteen: singing the world Rate this: Please feel free to circulate.TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

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