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What Is a Sijo?

By Christina Hall
Updated May 17, 2024
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A sijo is a work of three-line poetry from Korea that adheres to the specific guideline of containing 14-16 syllables per line with a pause in the middle. The term “sijo” is modern term that encompasses both the singular and plural form of the noun and replaced the traditional Korean word “danga,” which means “short song.” In this regard, a sijo can be thought of as lyrical song. The theme of most traditional poems in the genre is natural, often times expounding upon the time period’s most obscure topics like metaphysics and astronomy. The ancient danga eventually became popular in Korean royal courts, as well as in the common person’s life via knowledge-seeking groups and an artistic subculture, as a way of expressing religious or philosophical ideas and concepts.

Sijo is thought to share a common ancestry with similar forms of Japanese poetry like tanka and haiku. Like the well-known haiku style, its Korean counterpart uses a narrative and thematic style, bringing dramatic flair and dynamic storytelling to the art form. The narrative is usually introduced in line one of the poem in the form of a problem or situation, developed further in line two with more information about the theme, and finally resolved in line three. Well-written sijo poetry often includes a literary “twist” or an unsuspected play on words in the first half of the last line. The unsuspected element, often adding humor or wittiness to the prose, can be in the form of a simple word or phrase or it can be found as an unexpected tone or other alliteration.

The 14-16 syllable guideline can be further broken down by half lines which contain 6-9 syllables each. The rule is sometimes broken in the last half of the last line; many sijo poets write it to be shorter. Due to sijo’s lyrical nature and propensity to be performed as song, its reading often resembles poetic biblical phrases that are often included in Christian hymns and verbal devotions. A sijo is sometimes repetitive in nature, echoing key phrases or words, further exemplifying its common use as a song or chant.

Although sijo adheres strictly to syllable restrictions in general, many poets of the genre don’t count syllables intently. They focus instead on the phrasal quality of the line. Their concentration is on creating seamless and well-constructed pairs of phrases that help to create a discernible rhythm that can be easily sung or played on an accompanying musical instrument. Most pieces are not titled; the ones that are titled are bestowed with such usually as a means by which to include extra syllables or an extra line not permitted by traditional guidelines.

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Discussion Comments
By ysmina — On Apr 22, 2014

@literally45-- It's true that sijo can be and is written in six lines instead of three sometimes. But I think it's best to stick to three lines because this is one of the major characteristics of sijo. The structure is rather simple, it's the selection of rhythmic words and the unexpected twist that makes sijo unique.

By literally45 — On Apr 21, 2014

@discographer-- Of course! The guidelines of sijo poetry can be followed to write poetry in any language and there are many examples in the English language. Some famous Korean sijo poetry have also been translated into English, such as the poetry of Hwang Chin-i.

It is not difficult to write sijo in my opinion. It's just important to know the guidelines and keep to them. Of course, the way the words are chosen and used are important for sijo, but this is true for any poetry type really.

Korean sijo is traditionally three lines by sijo in English is often six lines because it is difficult to fit everything into three lines when sijo is written in English. So the guidelines for writing sijo are not entirely rigid.

By discographer — On Apr 21, 2014
Wow, sijo sounds like a difficult type of poetry. I remember learning about haiku all the way back in middle school and we had even written our own haikus in school. But sijo sounds much more complicated. It obviously requires more skill and a good grasp of language to write a sijo.

Is it possible to write a sijo in English?

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