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.

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