The Korea Herald


Ancient yet modern, 'sijo' brings universal message in 'All the Daughters of the Earth'

By Hwang Dong-hee

Published : May 3, 2023 - 18:41

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"All the Daughters of the Earth" (left) by poet Kim Il-yeon (Seoul Selection)

Many Koreans may think of “sijo” as a thing of the past. Some may recall learning the sijo of “yangban,” or aristocrats of Joseon, in textbooks or know by heart Hwang Jin-yi’s famous sijo poems. Occasionally, sijo is recited in historical dramas.

But the traditional Korean poetic form that emerged in the Goryeo period and flourished during the Joseon period is still being written today.

A new collection of sijo poems has been published in Korean and English by Seoul Selection, a Seoul-based publishing company that specializes in Korean literature in translation.

“All the Daughters of the Earth,” by poet Kim Il-yeon and translated by Brother Anthony of Taize, also known as An Son-jae, contains 66 sijo in Korean and English, side by side.

The dual language translation was something Kim thought of to promote sijo internationally. “Sijo itself is such a long tradition, and it takes hundreds and hundreds of years to build a tradition,” said Kim in an interview with The Korea Herald in April.

“We have this precious tradition, which boasts some 800 years of history. But not many people are aware of it.”

Kim, who has been writing sijo since her literary debut in 1980, is also the president of the International Sijo Association.

“(The association) is now entering its fourth or fifth year. We held some biennial events with several Haiku Associations from Japan. But many have never heard of sijo when they are familiar with Japanese haiku,” said Kim, referring to the traditional Japanese poem.

The basic form of sijo, called "dan-sijo," is usually a three-line poem.

In terms of content, a typical sijo introduces a situation in the first line, develops it in the second and concludes with a twist in the final line. For the final line, a three to five syllable rule is observed.

“Dan-sijo is short -- only three lines. But the tightly structured poems can hold infinite meaning in them,” said Kim. “It’s like when you make fermented alcohol. Bits and chunks sink and only clear things float on top. A pure message is expressed in sijo.”

“People think sijo is difficult because the form is fixed, but in fact it’s very easy to write sijo (for beginners) because the form is already there,” Kim said.

“It’s like writing a drama consisting of ‘gi (beginning),’ ‘seung (development),’ ‘jeon (transition)’ and ‘gyeol (conclusion).’ That is very universal.”

Indeed, Kim’s sijo are “ancient” in form, but free and modern in content and universal in their message.

She talks about familial love, nature, her spirit and her sentiments as she goes about her daily life. In particular, she devotes the first section of the book to verses about her parents and her two daughters. She conveys her love to the global community -- thus the title “All the Daughters of the Earth.”

While strictly adhering to the sijo form, Kim's poems capture the essence of life with vivid sketches of nature and everyday life.

“Sijo is poetry and poetry holds a simple universal message. It’s just a prejudice that poetry is difficult. If you read the verses, the hints are all there,” she said.

Kim is currently working on another collection of sijo poems titled “Distant Love,” along with a collection of prose essays on sijo, which are to be published soon. As part of her efforts to promote sijo within and outside Korea, Kim also runs a YouTube channel called Sijo-Tube.