Sijo can be traced at least as far back as King Yuri's Song of Yellow Birds from 17BC, the earliest
written evidence of Korean poetry. Since it began solely as an oral tradition, sijo is actually much
older than that writing. Sijo is a modern term for what was then called dan-ga (literally, "short song"). Sijo is more ancient than haiku, Japanese style verse.
The "sijo" is the most popular and most Korean of all traditional Korean poetic forms, originating with the old songs of the Hyang-ga of the Sylla Empire (668-936) and the prose songs of the Koryo Dynasty (918-1392). Sijo has become popular among Confucian scholars of the eleventh century, but its roots are in those earlier forms. By the 13th century, sijo was the predominant lyric poetry of Korea. The height of sijo occurred in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially after the introduction of Hanguel, the Korean alphabet, in 1446. Sijo gained popularity in the royal courts, yet it had a parallel appeal to the common people. With its slow tempo and calm feeling, it appeals to common people as elegant music that is easy to sing.
There are three sijo forms: Chung-sijo, Chang-sijo and Pyong-sijo. The more melodic Pyongsijo has been the preferred choice among Koreans and is now identified simply as sijo.
There are actually three main variants:
1) the slightly expanded sijo, called ossijo;
2) the widely expanded sijo, called sasol sijo, used as a narrative form, and
3) the yon-sijo (linked poetry).
These new forms were the idea of Yi Pyong-gi (the father of the modern sijo), who called the attention to the fact that the sijo should "convey the complexities of modern life by extending its structure, if necessary, from the conventional single stanza to two or more …."
A linked sijo (or yon-sijo) may be written by one or several poet; one writes a sijo (as an opening statement or question) and the other would write a sijo in response. Contemporary version of linked sijo was written by Elizabeth St.Jaques and Dr. Larry Gross -see How to write linked sijo and sijo sequence; (http://members.tripod.com/~Startag/LinkedSijo.html)
There have been other attempts of modernization and reform. Yi Un-sang, for example, introduced the seven-line sijo, the yang-jang sijo (two lines) and the tang-jang sijo (one line), but these new forms have not been very successful.
Three characteristics that make sijo unique are
its basic structure,
musical/rhythmic elements, and
Sijo is more lyrical, subjective and personal than haiku. Like haiku and tanka, it is an unrhymed poetry.
Sijo use more metaphoric language and expression of emotion, especially in their final lines, than
haiku or tanka. While imagery (metaphor, simile, pun, etc.) is used in many sijo, it is not mandatory.
Sijo cover a wide range of subjects such as politics, love, life, music, nature, loneliness, and even
common personal matters like drinking and aging. It expresses the complex and unique concept of
sadness and hope called “Han”, the very core of Korean life.
The sijo poet tries to convey his own experiences, like friendship, love, wine, loyalty to the king, transience and old age. The sijo includes historical songs, political songs, drinking songs, moral songs, songs of loyalty, love songs, songs of solitude, music, mortality, nature, retirement and rustic life. Many of these songs are anonymous (like our folksongs), and were and are sung by everybody everywhere. Old people for example sing sijo in their backyards, slapping their knees with rhythmic blows to mark the tempo.
Sijo are sung solo to a small number of standard melodies, with the accompaniment of the hourglass
drum (changuu), small bamboo oboe (piri), long transverse flute (taegum), short vertical flute (tanso)
and the two-fiddle zither (haegum). Not all of the instruments need to be used. In fact, accompaniment is often very informal music that can be performed with the janggu (hourglass-shaped drum) or hitting one's lap, without using any melodic instruments. The sijo music begins with a note in the middle musical range and stays around there. In the Seoul style (as opposed to the country style), high pitch notes appear in certain places.
Kevin O'Rourke says in his The Book of Korean Shijo (shijo is an alternate spelling of sijo),
"There is nothing in English poetry remotely like the shijo……Usually the verses are in simple vernacular, most often nature-based, which comment on the typical joys, trials and sorrows of the people. On the surface, a sijo is simply stated and easily understood”.
O'Rourke, in the introduction to his book, writes, “The vernacular songs were supposed to move the heart, rather than the head……..'Shijo are songs. This gives them a particular quality: they are light, personal, and often conversational; the language is simple, direct, and devoid of elaboration or ornamentation”.
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