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Samuel Peralta here…

The poetry form I’m talking about today is a three-line structure, from out of Asia.

No, not the haiku.

The three-line, 17-syllable Japanese form is now so well-known that there are contests and literary magazines devoted to it, elementary school children compose it, and it is the predominant poetry form on Twitter.

Instead, here is an example of the poetry form, I’m talking about, by one of its most celebrated practitioners, Yun Son-do (1587-1671)

“Song of My Five Friends”
Yun Son-do

You ask how many friends I have? Water and stone, bamboo and pine.
The moon rising over the eastern hill is a joyful comrade.
Besides these five companions, what other pleasure should I ask?

Bamboo grove

Bamboo grove

“Song of My Five Friends” is a sijo (pronounced see’-zho) – a three-line poetic form from Korea.

Besides the three lines, the sijo – like haiku – traditionally explores natural or philosophical themes, but beyond that there are many differences that make the sijo unique.

Sijo is composed in three lines, each line having 14-16 syllables, for a total count of between 44-46 syllables for the entire poem.

There is usually a pause in the middle, and this has allowed English sijo to be written in six lines, with each line breaking at the caesura.

The fact that sijo – the word is both singular and plural – are composed of only three lines drives the discipline of the composer to focus on the essence of their theme.

On the other hand, the length of each line allows a thematic exploration that goes beyond what can be accomplished in similar forms like the haiku or renga.

This also allows the time for the poet to develop their theme using more complex metaphors, allusions, onomatopoeia, and other techniques

Korean botanical gardens on Jeju Island

Korean botanical gardens on Jeju Island

Strictly speaking, each of the three lines are written so that they form four groups of syllables that can be differentiated from each other, while retaining a lyrical flow.

Each half line is divided into two parts averaging 3-5 syllables each, with just the breath of a pause between the parts.

As it turns out, the English language is able to naturally fall into the (3-5, 3-5, 3-5, 3-5) syllabic requirement for each line, which makes the sijo amazingly suited for English-based poetry.

Some modern poets in English find they can accomplish the above by ignoring all but the total syllabic count until the final edit – simply because English words and phrasing easily adapt to sijo phrasing.

Regular meter is not critical in composing a sijo. What counts is the musical quality – and that’s what the in-line syllabic requirement tries to achieve.

"Scholar Contemplating a Cascade", Yi Chong, ca. 1550

“Scholar Contemplating a Cascade”, Yi Chong, ca. 1550

As with its haiku or ballad counterparts, the subject of a sijo may be narrative, or philosophical, or expressive.

In all cases, the thematic development is the same. The first line introduces the theme, the second develops the theme in a different direction, and the final line provides closure.

Here is another sijo, for you to breathe in that musical quality, and the thematic development.

“The Fisherman’s Calendar”
Yun Son-do

When autumn arrives on the river, all the fish grow fatter.
We savor unnumbered hours swept along by gentle currents.
Man’s dusty world fades away, doubling my joy with distance.

19th Century Korean jar with pomegranate and bird design

19th Century Korean jar with pomegranate and bird design

Tonight, I invite you to contribute your own sijo, in the traditional as laid it out here.

This time, I won’t start until you do – when the doors open today at 3pm, I’ll begin writing as well – so if you’ve finished first, be kind and visit back to see how I – and others – have done!

If you’re curious, I am hoping to be reading any sijo I complete tonight – Thursday, April 25, 6pm EST – in a poetry-reading and online interview on Winslow Eliot’s WriteSpa show on BlogTalkRadio, for National Poetry Month.

I hope to catch you there, but if you do miss that show, I’m also on J.J. Brown’s ScienceFirst radio show on ArtistFirst Radio Network – on Wednesday, May 1, 9pm EST – talking about science and poetry.

A musical structure, more compact than a ballad, more expansive than haiku – sijo are a joy to read, and I hope you will join me in writing and sharing tonight.

Thank you.


Samuel Peralta – on Twitter as @Semaphore – is the award-winning author of five titles in The Semaphore CollectionSonata Vampirica, Sonnets from the Labrador, How More Beautiful You Are, Tango Desolado and War and Ablution – all Amazon Kindle top five best sellers in poetry.

Copyright (c) Samuel Peralta. All rights reserved.

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