Sijo Articles

R.I.P.: Repetition, Immediacy and Primacy in Sijo


I frequently offer my workshops a handy device to remember the most effective ways of providing emphasis in composition: R.I.P. No, not Rest In Peace: Repetition, Immediacy, Primacy.

Let's deal with Immediacy and Primacy first, to get them out of the way. We will deal with them more at length in later workshops. Here we will deal with the basics.

Primacy refers to that which comes first (prime=first, one). All other things being equal, the word or phrase which comes first in a sentence or line receives emphasis purely because it is first: Nothing else precedes it (a clean slate), so it has our full attention. The weaker portions most often appear in the middle. That's why we strive for strong beginnings to our lines, and why those first two or three syllables of the final sijo line provide the strong "twist" characteristic of the form.

Immediacy refers to that which has been said or seen most recently: in other words, the final words or phrase in a sentence, line or verse. Its finality makes it linger in our minds when all else fades away. In Western poetry, the last part of the final line is often reserved for the strongest statement, like the punch line of a joke. Since we are so used to that tradition, the sijo can cause us problems because it puts more emhasis on the first part of the final line (the twist). We often deal with that problem by providing a strong twist at the beginning and a strong ending as well. That's one of the challenges that make the final line of a sijo more difficult to write.

Then there is Repetition. Repetition is good, but it isn't always good. The prescribed number of pills can be helpful; an overdose can kill. Of course, many beautiful and moving sijo are written with seemingly little or no use of repetition, but it can be a useful device in poetry, most especially in lyrical verse. As Debi Bender has pointed out elsewhere, "[Since sijo is song, important words may be repeated, as in any ballad or Western song."

Verse emanating from or based on folk (or oral) tradition often relies on repetition. The ear more readily remembers what it hears most often. The European ballad thrives on it. African chants and work songs (the basis for the blues, rap, and much modern pop) are based on it. Tho the influence of Western free verse in Korea has weakened the tradition a bit, classic and conventional sijo employ it frequently. It is a useful structural device to tie a verse together, and it is a very useful way to provide emphasis.

So how can we evaluate our use or repetition? Basically, our audience will tell us. But that is after the fact. In the meantime, we can become familiar with specific kinds of repetition and their relative value to the poet. As so often happens, my suggestions come in threes.

1. Incidental Repetition. This is the kind that usually prompts us to tell someone "there is too much repetition in this poem" or "this repetition is wasteful." It is incidental because the reader can perceive no overriding purpose for its being there. It usually occurs in non-strategic places; that is, in words or phrases that do not seem vital to the overall intent. It frequently happens with weak words, words that are not nouns or verbs. That's why in a recent sijoforum exchange a reader suggested that Gino not repeat under in the following verse:


I wish I were a mammal with four feet and a long tail.
My feet I'd tuck under me, the tail I'd wrap around my nose.
Under the snow, in dark nests of dried grass, I'd sleep until spring.

"Under" does not seem to be building a sequence, and it occurs in incidental places. First it is hidden in the middle of a line, traditionally the weakest part of a statement; then, altho it is a relatively weak word (a preposition), it occurs in the most powerful place in the poem, leading off line.3. Gino's solution is a good one. He keeps the hidden under in L.2 and replaces the other with a much stronger word, a verb form, at the beginning of L.3.


I wish I were a mammal with four feet and a long tail.
My feet I'd tuck under me, the tail I'd wrap around my nose.
Hidden in snow, in dark nests of dried grass, I'd sleep until spring.

Notice that Gino kept his other repetitions, feet and tail. That is most likely a good choice, also. Why?

2. Purposefeul (or Organic) Repetition. That's why! The reader can see a purpose going on here. Those two words provide an outline, a framework, for the first two lines. As Dina wisely points out, "that seems to be okay, because there is a progression from the mere fact of the tail in L. 1 to the use of the tail in L. 2." Those key words emphasize meaning and also strengthen the overall structure. In adddition, they provide pleasing echoesof sound, so Gino fortifies the three basic building blocks of any piece of writing: meaning, sound and structure. If we can see such purposeful things going on, we welcome repetition as long as it isn't overdone.

How do we know when we are overdoing? Again, reader reaction and practice, practice, practice. The magical Rule of Three is also a handy guideline: a sequence of more than three can easily become tedious.

3. Incremental Repetition. One way of keeping a repetitive sequence from becoming tedious is to vary it slightly. An example occurs in the closing line of paragraph 2 at the beginning of this essay: "It is a useful device to tie the structure of a verse together, and it is a very useful way to provide emphasis." The addition of very, tho not a sstrong word in itself, adds a bit of variety to an otherwise mundane repetition. As the food guru Emeril likes to say when he throws in spices and herbs, "Let's kick it up a little bit." I could have repeated device there as well, but I thought it might be overkill.

What do you think of the repetition in this sijo?

They knew just how to work the land and when to husk new corn;
they knew herbs for every ill, the fitting depth of a root cellar.
Do they smile down on what I reap, strange fruits of city labors?

Created 060310

Quick Nav: