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(revised, March 2001)

by Elizabeth St Jacques


The sijo form – haiku's cousin – originated in Korea with the old songs of the Sylla empire (668-936) and the prose songs of the Koryo kingdom (918-1392). Near the end of the latter era, sijo came into its own, becoming Korea's most beloved poetry form. 

Traditionally, the sijo consists of three lines of 14-16 syllables each with a total of 44 to 46 syllables per poem. A natural pause occurs midway in each line, each half line consisting of 6 to 9 syllables. 

Allow me to share a formula you may find helpful. To get the traditional number of syllables per line or couplet, these combinations work smoothly:

for 14 syllables: 7 + 7; 6 + 8 (or) 8 + 6 
for 15 syllables: 7 + 8 (or) 8 + 7 
for 16 syllables: 8 + 8; 9 + 6 (or) 6 + 9 
Each group (i.e. - 7 + 7) indicates a line or couplet comprised of two parts: 7 syllables in the first half of the line or couplet, and 7 syllables in the last half. 

Unless there is a specific reason (to emphasize something in the poem), line 2 is most attractive as the longest line in the poem. While this longer middle line provides a pleasing visual balance, a shorter (to the eye) line is perfectly permissible. The choice is entirely up to you.

Western poets are encouraged not to exceed 46 syllables. Otherwise the sijo tends to look and sound more like free verse than sijo. I have no complaint, however, when a sijo has fewer than 44 syllables –  providing the musical quality that is so important to sijo is not sacrificed. Therefore, it is a good idea to read your sijo aloud. If it lacks a singing quality, your poem may benefit from more syllables. 

The sijo may be narrative or thematic, serious or humorous and evokes human emotion. Line 1 presents a problem or theme; line 2 develops or "turns" the thought; line 3 resolves the problem or concludes the theme. Important: the first half of line 3 employs a "twist" by means of a surprise in meaning, sound, tone or other device. To end the poem with a surprise (a profound or humorous turn) is a must. Equally important: avoid choppy lines; each line should be smooth as should be the transition between lines, particularly in lines 1 and 2.

Run-on lines are to be avoided. That is, a line or couplet should end cleanly and be complete, not run over to the next line or couplet. Below, I have re-written the first two lines of my sijo to provide a run-on line:

Most every night the labrador retriever he once had runs 
by his side as they romp through lands of merry make-believe.
The old monk sighs and shuffles back into dawn’s reality. 
As you see, not only are the first two lines awkward, but “runs” in line 1 spills over to “by his side” in line 2, thereby presenting an incomplete line 1. To avoid this, a reworking is necessary so that both lines end cleanly and with a strong image:

        The labrador retriever runs through his dreams most every night;
        side by side they romp and play through lands of merry make-believe. 
        The old monk sighs and shuffles back into dawn's reality.

Now we have two distinct lines, yet each lines refer to each other, thereby honoring the “turn” that is essential in sijo. Sometimes the first two lines of a sijo can be reworked to end line 1 with a semi-colon, which divides the two lines just as successfully.  Watch out for line endings that end with an article, proposition, conjunction, or verb as these create run-on lines. 

Also try to keep punctuation at a minimum, especially commas, that tend to clutter a sijo visually and more than not, make for stilted reading. When commas are necessary for comprehension, try replacing each with an extra space – the reader will understand. As in any type of poetry, use exclamation marks sparingly as they tend to shout at the reader: HEY, LOOK HOW CLEVER I AM!

Imagery is encouraged, but not compulsory. As mentioned above, a pleasing musical quality is imperative because even though sijo are rarely sung or chanted today, it is one of sijo’s loveliest qualities. End rhyme is not encouraged, but if used, no more than two rhymed lines please. If you choose to rhyme, internal rhyme is preferred, but again, please use sparingly. Once is quite enough for any sijo. Characteristics unique to sijo and to be honored are its basic structure, musical/rhythmic elements, and the all important "twist."

Rarely does a sijo require title. When a title is used, make certain it is absolutely essential. That is, a title should either provide information necessary to understand the poem or serve to lure the reader (by creating a little mystery) into reading the poem. If a title lifts a phrase from the sijo, then a title is unnecessary.

To facilitate Western printers, the sijo sometimes appears as a 6-line poem. That is, each line is divided midway to  become a couplet. Also, the 6-line format sometimes helps to emphasize a particular emotion (i.e. – an extra line between two couplets can symbolize a feeling of loneliness, physical separation, etc.). Therefore, modern sijo may consist of  3 or 6 lines. 

Because sijo (like haiku) is so brief, particular care must be taken to use only those words necessary. Be on guard not to repeat unless it is for a specific reason. However, try not to repeat articles more than twice at most. By replacing "the" or "a" with a descriptive word you will find it more than compensates. 

In case you are wondering, sijo is pronounced  see-zhoo. Also, whether you refer to one or many sijo, the spelling is the same.  For example, one sijo or ten sijo. (An aside: this also applies for haiku, senryu, tanka, renku, renga, haibun, rengay.)

Finally, remind yourself that when learning any unfamiliar poetry form, patience and practice are essential ingredients. As with writing any genre, be prepared to revise, revise, revise. When your first sijo is accepted, you’ll know your hard efforts have been well worth it. 

But can you do it?  Of course you can!  The world is waiting to rejoice with you . . .