Water Poetry 5: The Sijo

the king's private gazebo

It’s been a few months since I’ve posted anything in the Water Poetry Series. Remarkably, they are the most popular posts on this blog. The concept has been to write a poem about a body of water in a poetry form native to that country. The Free Verse about the San Francisco Bay gets the most hits of any of my posts. The Elizabethan Sonnet about the Thames, the Villanelle about the Seine, and the Haiku about the Tama River are 4th to 6th. I’ve tried to come up with some explanations for their popularity. I mean it’s poetry. Who reads and writes poetry anymore? Yet, apparently people do. And I think it’s a great sign of the state of the world.

In this post, I spotlight the Sijo, a Korean poetry form that traces its roots back over two millennia and had its heyday during the 13th to the 16th Century. Because the sijo is written in three lines it’s compared to the haiku, but the lines are substantially longer, and the content of the poem is much broader and often personal. Traditionally, the sijo is written to be sung aloud which lends it a lyrical quality

So to write a sijo just follow these simple guidelines.

• There are three lines of 14-16 syllables.

• Each line has two separate phrases roughly 6-9 syllables.

• The first line introduces the topic, theme, or situation.

• The second line develops the topic.

• The third line provides a twist, or some kind of surprise

When I visited Seoul two years ago, I hadn’t been there since 1980.  It was an entirely different country than when I had last visited.  It was modern and confident, by then a well-cooked stew of glass, concrete, luxury cars and cocky optimism.

Back in 1980, South Korea was still a developing country.  There was only one kind of sedan on the road, called the Pony.  Children squatted on the street to relieve themselves.  Leathery men carried human waste in buckets balanced on poles.  Few people had flush toilets.  The nation was under martial law.  These are only some of the more extreme images of  poverty that I remember, but Korea was far from the 12th richest country that it is today.

There were many more things that were different.  Among them, I didn’t remember the Han River, the river that cuts through the city, to be so wide.  In fact, it’s 1 mile or 2.2 km wide.  I later found out that the river had been dammed downstream before the 1988 Olympics to fill the riverbanks and allow a more picturesque scenery for tourists, and to control flooding.  Ancient Seoul was originally a walled capital north of the river, with the recently burned-down Namdaemun as its south gate.  Along the river and south of the river were the farmers that supported the city.  Now much of the city’s wealth has gravitated towards the south banks.  The burning of the Great South Gate symbolizes that expansion of the city boundary.

The picture above is not of the Han River.  It’s the Hwangwonjeong pavilion, where the king used to write poetry, and the small pond surrounding it in Gyeongbok Palace.

Before the high priced towers and the catwalk avenues,
Only the servants of the poor lived on the southern banks.
Now ashes of the Great South Gate have settled on its soil.