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Like Haiku, It Is a Three-Line Poem

The Sijo


one-two rhythm of the stallion trotting down a country lane
he moves through woods over a bridge across a stream and up a hill
well-worn beneath his clockwork feet the dusty road leads home

Kirsty Karkow, in The Sijoforum

That's what it looks like. Simple, isn't it?

Sijo (the word is both singular and plural) also resembles haiku in having a strong foundation in nature, but its lines average 14-16 syllables, for a total of 44-46. For best results, poets follow these and other guidelines very closely.

Either narrative or thematic, this lyric verse introduces a situation or problem in line 1, development (called a turn) in line 2, and a strong conclusion beginning with a surprise (a twist) in line 3, which resolves tensions or questions raised by the other lines and provides a memorable ending.

Bandanas wave from cedar boughs; beneath, a pyre of stone.
On army land Geronimo sleeps, clouds pass over the sun.
This warrior cry inside my head, an echo or just a dream.

...Rick Long, in The Sijoforum

Korean poetry can be traced at least as far back as King Yuri's Song of Yellow Birds (17BC), but its roots are in still earlier Chinese quatrains. Sijo, Korea's favorite poetic genre, is often traced to Confucian monks of the eleventh century, but its roots, too, are in those earlier forms. Its greatest flowering occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Sijo is, first and foremost, a song. This lyric pattern gained popularity in royal courts as a vehicle for religious or philosophic expression, but a parallel tradition arose among the 'common' folk. Sijo were sung or chanted with musical accompaniment, and still are. In fact, the word originally referred only to the music, but it has come to be identified with the lyric as well.

As stated earlier, historically, sijo consists of 3 lines of from 14 to 16 syllables each:

beneath wisteria clusters, hidden, I wait in purple.
perfumed by petals, these longings rise, twine, intertwine and rise...
rise to break apart among clouds...silently break among clouds.

...Debi Bender, in The Sijoforum

However, some contemporary poets and editors prefer to split the long lines in half for formatting reasons, resulting in a 6-line format which has become quite acceptable:

Remember when we made a seine
of gunny-sacks and broomsticks?
Soaked to the waist, we filled milk-pails
with channel-cat and crawdads.
A snapping turtle snagged our net
and bit clear through a broomstick.

...gino peregrini, in The Sijoforum

Again like haiku, sijo may use puns, allusions and similar word play. Unlike its Japanese cousin, however, it may use metaphor and other figurative language more openly.

Frankincense and ancient chants
embrace upon this holy air.

The stone vault, sealing their ascent,
is the art of a cathedral.

But the bolder leap of our open kiss
cannot be wed to earth.

...Donald Lanska, in The Sijoforum

An important feature at the beginning of the final line is the twist: a surprise of meaning, sound, tone or other technique. The final line is likely to be more subjective and personal, and it frequently takes a profound, witty or proverbial turn.

Although most sijo in the classic tradition have no titles, the author of the following verse chose to use one. In this case, I believe it supplies important information that might otherwise slow the progress of the body of the poem.

Zuisen-ji (Kamakura: January Second)

Climbing stairs to Zuisen-ji,
I go deeper into the hills.
In the garden of the temple,
narcissus lean against stones.
Once at home again, a thought rings true;
even stones have friends.

...Carmen Sterba, in The Sijoforum

Although the classic sijo adheres closely to syllabic restrictions, it doesn’t simply count syllables. It is more phrasal than syllabic. Because of its nature and the nature of Hangul, the Korean script, the structure of sijo resembles Hebrew & biblical verse. In English it may resemble Hopkins’ sprung rhythm. To achieve this effect, each long line, once divided, is divided again, into quarters averaging 3-5 syllables. This phrasal quality is a basic feature of the form. Meter is not vital in sijo, but that musical link is. In the following verse, the midline break is represented by two slashes (//) and the quarter-line breaks by one (/).

how lovely / this spruce tree // its limbs laden / with virgin snow
the bloodred / on a robin's breast // the skyblue / of a mountain jay
for such wonder/ what wise man // would not know / his Creator ?'ya, in The Sijoforum

The poet should not lose sight of three basic characteristics that make the sijo unique: its structure, its musical/rhythmic elements, and the twist.

Other Sijo Pages

Larry's Sijo
My individual sijo, sijo sequences and linked sijo (with Elizabeth St Jacques).
Selected Sijo
Various poets from Sijo West and elsewhere.
Sijo from the Masters
Classic Korean verses adapted into English.
Dueling Sijo and links to other sites
A good place to discuss what makes sijo tick and find other sites that share this interest. Let us know of any broken links.
The Fisherman's Calendar
The most famous work from the finest master of sijo, Yun Son-do.
The Sijoforum
An email discussion group for posting anything and everything about sijo. Open to all.

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My Other Pages

Sayings of the Wise Shang-ti
Haiku-like verses from a would-be guru sitting high atop McDonald's Golden Arches.
What Is a Renga?
Explore the fascinating world of renga, complete with examples and directions for writing.
Toolkit for Poets
A large collections of links to sites useful to poets.
Poetry Forms and Terminology
Descriptions and examples of a variety of poetry forms, plus a glossary of terms.
Florida State Poets Association
The gathering place for Florida's poets.
It all starts here

Larry Gross

e-mail, please
Tallahassee, FL

Updated 080503

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