Sunday, April 24, 2011


Here's an English shijo poem I wrote over the weekend:

Teahouse in Nampodong, B-boy group outside raging tunes
Young to old, we take our photos, turn to traditional ways
Work, shopping, tired to the teahouse, we are all tourists here.

I wrote it last Saturday. I went to a Nampo teahouse to mark my midterm exams and outside, infront of the Krispy Kreme Doughnut shop, they had a b-boy group (Korean for a group of boy dancers) and several famous singers. I think it was a promotion for the BeanPole Clothing brand as that store was right across from the doughnut shop.

 Heres another I wrote a few hours earlier:

What we write or tell the young ones can only last for so long
Through our lives we work and play, slaves to a moments sensation
Take lovely pictures while ye may; we are all tourists here.

The Korean for the English shijo is as follows:

잚을 이들에게 말하거나 쓴것을 그 한게가 있다
우리는 인생을 통해 일하고 즐깁니다 한 순가의 욕망의 노예가
아름다운 사진을 가능한 찍어보세요 우리는 모두 관광객 입니다.

Translation above by Sung-Yirahn 성이란. Typing by myself so any typos are mine --MWT.
먹을수있는한 김밥을 드새요, 우리는 모두 관광객 입니다.
(Eat kimbap while ye may, we are all tourists here).

A decent substitute for the last line in the English could be:
Eat delicious hamburgers while ye may; we are all tourists here.
(먹을수있는한 맛있는 함버거드새요, 우리는 모두 관광객 입니다).
That last line with hamburgers makes me laugh, especially as I love Thomas Grill in Daeyeon/Kyungsung.

Living in Busan for 8 years I have had alot of time to reflect on what it means to be a long time resident here, versus my being a foreigner, always learning but never to become a true native Korean (caucasian face and race aside). I began to reflect on what it means then, to be a tourist. I realized that I am forever to be a kind of tourist here. But in essence, aren't we all tourists...

I had that final line buzzing in my head for the past 3 months now: Take your pictures while ye may, we are all tourists here. A modern day Carpe Diem kind of thing. In the 2nd poem I changed it to "lovely" to match a common traditional shijo form of 15,15,14 syllables.
Welcome, tourists all, to my blog. MWT.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Writing an English Shijo : The Romance of Couplets

This article should be subtitled : couplet combinations found within a Shijo line; a discovery I had made in my readings on the English shijo. Originally Shijo poems were sung by Korean gisaeng and were thus quite lyrical.
(as a side note, my cellphone dictionary describes a gisaeng/기생 as a female entertainer who makes a feast or a drinking party more enjoyable :-).
Incidentally, my apartment overlooks Igidae Park: a narrow mountainous peninsula that runs along the shore of the East Sea. It is called Igidae as, according to legend, two gisaengs partying along with a Japanese general, grabbed him and plunged to their deaths off the cliffs of Igidae. Not your typical end to a party with a gisaeng I presume, unless you are an unwelcome occupier. 

As described earlier, a korean shijo/sijo poem has three lines consisting of any of the syllable  combinations below:

Many 15, 15, 14.
Many 15, 14, 15
Some 15, 15, 17. 
Some 14, 14, 15
Few  14, 15, 15.
Few  15, 15, 16
Rarely 13, 15, 16
Rarely 16, 14, 15.

As with haiku there are many many combinations beyond the traditional 5,7,5 for haiku as there is beyond the 15, 15, 14 for shijo.
Although there are other combinations beyond my simple list here, other combinations are, to my knowledge, extremely rare.

Looking more closely and more importantly, reading the various writings of the three English sijo masters, I have found that each line of a sijo contains couplets!
There is some disagreement between Canadian poet Elizabeth St.Jacques and Professor McCann on how to divide the sijo line. Like the slicing of a cake, there are fine slender slices and then there's your generous helpings.

Harvard Professor David R. McCann can be classified as a slender slicer. In his 1976 “The Structure of The Korean Sijo” he divides each line into 4 parts or groups as quoted below:
                              Group             I                    II                 III            IV
No. of Syllables:   Line 1            3                      4             3 or 4          4    
                                 Line 2            3                     4               3 or 4       4
                                 Line 3            3                     5              4                3

He also uses his 4 slices of line method to describe other variations of sijo syllable combinations:

                         Group               I                    II                   III              IV
                          Line 1            2-4                4-5                  2-4                4-5
                          Line 2             2-5                3-4              3-6                 3-4
                          Line 3              2-3                4-7              3-4                 3-5

Slender slices of 4 can become rather quite complicated. Myself, I prefer generous helpings when I either have my cake or work with a new poetry form. Canadian poet Elizabeth St.Jacques on her webpage article entitled About Sijo divides each line into 2 more simple parts. As you'll find in the writing of sijo, larger blocks are easier to work with. She suggests :

for 14 syllable lines use couplet combinations of 7 + 7; 6 + 8 or 8 + 6
for 15 syllable lines use 7 + 8 or 8 + 7
for 16 syllable lines use 8 + 8; 9 + 6 or 6 + 9. 

It is because of these couplet combinations that some English Shijo are written in 6 lines instead of 3. All Korean Shijo poems are in 3 lines but when translated there are sometimes commas placed in the middle of some lines.
Personally I prefer English Shijo poems in 3 lines but, the choice is yours.

Now, armed with these syllable combinations for couplets, I'm off to write a better, more lyrical sijo than before. Until then, here's a haiku about the spring cherry blossoms I wrote earlier today:

pink flecks float like cloud
with rain they fall and scatter
spring opens with loss. -- MWT.

English Sijo Masters we can all learn from.

Essentially, there are in fact three main English Sijo masters; a triad if you will. All of them have studied and written extensively about English Sijo. These masters of sijo are Canadian poet Elizabeth St. Jacques, Professor Larry Gross and Harvard Professor David R. McCann.

In 1995 St. Jacques and Gross started a poetry journal for English Sijo called Sijo West. It folded in 1999. In 1976 Professor David R. McCann published an article in the Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies entitled "The Structure o fthe Korean Sijo". Since then he has been working with, writing and studying Sijo in both Korean and English. McCann has been promoting the writing of English Sijo among highschool and elementary school teachers and has recently conducted several seminars on English Sijo writing in the Chicago area.

A great overview of shijo can be found here. It contains several articles from all three Sijo masters. At the bottom is a link that eventually leads to teaching guides for middle and highschool teachers to teach the sijo form in their writing classes. It is a fine alternative to doing haiku and is slightly more challenging for students.

A website containing poems from all three can be seen:
Here with the Sejong Society

Hands down, the best website that explains how to write English sijo poems is St.Jacques’ website. It is provides an excellent step by step guide to writing a Sijo.
In the west, it seems sijo writing is catching on. Since 2008 the Sejong Cultural Association has been holding a highschool Sijo writing contest. Every year, more and more students are submitting English Sijo poems to the contest. Here’s one of the winners from 2009:

First place - Creasy Clauser
A single sole was lost today, deep in the river Yalu,
Thrashing, twisting, torn to shreds with color quickly fading.
On the bridge a small boy laughs, holding out his empty shoe.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Korean Shijo/Sijo Form: kinda like a haiku.

Simply put, a Korean 시조/shijo is alot like a Japanese haiku: rhyming doesn't matter and its all in the syllables. I spell it shijo as it most closely matches the Korean pronunciation of shijo as opposed to the substandard sijo as sijo could be erroneously pronounced as see joe. Sijo? No. I see Dick and Jane.

A shijo is generally a three line poem with a pause in each of the three lines. The pause is not necessary but is found in some Korean shijo poems.

Like haiku, rhyming is not necessary.
Some may tell you that a shijo is not three lines but that it is more. They are referring to what may be called a shijo sequence. But lets not fill the air with noise and just stick to a shijo proper for now.
Many of these short three line shijos have been written as far back as the Goguryeo and Paekjae kingdoms. Many have been written during the Koryo and Joseon Dynasties.

Now for the syllables.
Generally a shijo has the first line 15 syllables, the next 15 and the final line with either 14 or 17 syllables.
Naver will back me up on that as well as one of my books on shijo. Thus, this goes for a traditional shijo.
You will notice that most haiku follow a 17 syllable total with lines being 5,7,5 syllables pattern. I say most. There are many in the world haiku association who deviate from this and still call their poems haiku. You need only to look to the Internet for examples illustrating this mass proliferation of haiku poems.
 The proliferation of syllable patterns with shijo runs about the same as with haiku.
In my book which contains mostly choseon era shijo in Korean with English translations contains many syllable pattern deviations in the original korean.
Thus you may write in any of the line/syllable patterns below at your leisure (as how the best poetry is written for it is in leisure that the mischevious muse seems to find us best). These were the patterns found in my book:
Many in the traditional 15, 15, 14. Some in the 15, 15, 17. Some 14, 14, 15
Many with 15, 14, 15.  A few were 14, 15, 15.
I found a few that were 15, 15, 16 and two, one was 13, 15, 16 and another 16, 14, 15.
So you can see they are generally with 15 and 14 syllables.
Here's one I'd written while waiting for my wife to come home:

Fukushima reactor radiating the countryside
Korean people showing only the slightest of concern
amid the busy bustle of people, life carries on.

See! 15, 15 14. A pitiful shijo. I even used the word people twice! Now you know enough. Go forth and kick my ass. Later we'll get into shijo sequences. MWT.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Imjin River Poem.

This one, written by Yi Ki Ban is about the Imjin river. The river runs from North Korea into South Korea, at times forming the border between both. Occasionally North Korean farmers are found floating dead in its waters.

The River Imjin
The river is tongue-tied,
too full of sorrow.
Wrenched with the pain of parting
my heart has grown numb.
Insects in the grass rend the air
as if to grieve for the nation.

Smiles on the faces of those in white
once streamed there like flapping flags;
those hillsides used to be crossed freely
by all, hand in hand.
Now they have turned into guns
that glare at each other. O river of sighs!
--Yi Ki Ban (b. 1931).