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A SIJO CONTROVERY
 

by Elizabeth St Jacques © 1999
(revised, Apr. 2001)



 
 
 

An essay by Robert William Watkins & Rynn Jacobs that criticizes sijo in SIJO WEST and LYNX and the editors of these journals caused quite a stir. "Amidst Confusion & Contempt" appeared in the January 1999 issue of LYNX.

Rather than repeat their lengthy, ostentatious essay here, my response that was published with the authors' essay may enlighten you. Because some readers may not have read the authors' essay, my response has been expanded to help fill in the gaps. 

"Amidst Confusion & Contempt" by Robert William Watkins & Rynn Jacobs leads off by quoting from SIJO WEST's introduction that states its editors are "not experts, but seekers." (This quote, in its proper context, is intended to set Western poets at ease, however, Robert Watkins and Rynn Jacobs use the quote with disdain.)

In their quest to "confront 'deviations' or mutations' of modern Korean sijo…"  their criticism focuses on three areas: "The Issue of Punctuation"; "Six Lines: A Potential for Deceit?"; and "The Eastern Sijo: Who Can Cast the First Stone?"

Punctuation

The authors question the use of "dashes, colons, semi-colons, question marks and full-fledged stops" within individual lines, claiming that "one rarely 
encounters a translation of the Old Masters which features any inner-line division, other than the natural break, which is sometimes emphasized 
with a comma." 

The authors are obviously unfamiliar with Richard Rutt's famous collection, "The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction To Sijo" that showcases numerous 
classical sijo. Since 1958, Richard Rutt – Bishop of Taejon – has written extensively on Korean literary and cultural subjects, establishing a 
reputation as one of the most learned translators of ancient sijo. "The Bamboo Grove" remains a prized collection of sijo translations to this day. 
Throughout the collection, punctuation is used extensively. To illustrate:
 

White gull skimming
   over the water –
Somebody happened to spit
    and the spittle hit the gull's back.
White seagull! Do not be angry:
    the world, you know, is messy.

                  - Chong Ch'ol 1536-1593


The authors also dispute the use of "sentences, clauses, quotes, etc." that spill over into a following line…."  They cite two sijo, including 

 Growls & groans fill the air: "the deficit is inhumane
 when doors are locked, keys thrown away – the hardships are unbearable."
 Yet cougars pace their tiny cell; the zookeeper is late today.

    - Elizabeth St Jacques, from "The Other Side" sequence, SIJO WEST #2, 1996

and wonder if "the Old Masters (would) have approved of such poems being published as sijo…"  Probably not. A run-on (the authors refer to it as a "spill over") is now considered undesirable in Western sijo, therefore, I admit that I did indeed err. This sijo, including the entire sequence, are presently undergoing revision.

However, for the authors to imply that run-ons and/or other innovations were devised by Westerners is incorrect. "Modern Korean Verse: In Sijo Form" by Professor Jaihiun Kim, the leading translator of approximately 2300 Korean poems into English and author of a dozen collections of his own poems, provides ample illustrations of  run-ons (and other changes) in the modern sijo form. For example:
 

Scarecrow I

Late at night
while sweeping the stars with my eyes
I hear the moon sinking.
I listen to clouds passing by
and contemplate the message
the wind brings.

             - Ho Il (top prize-winner 1963, 1979, 1981. 
               Most recent sijo collection, 1996)


Six Lines: A Potential for Deceit?

The authors question the sijo's six-line format, which they claim is the "new Western appearance."

Here again, Robert Watkins and Rynn Jacobs are incorrect. For Eastern sijo translated into English, translators to date have preferred the six-line format. (As seen in the above 6-line sijo) 

Robert Watkins and Rynn Jacobs also state that "Six lines is no longer a convenient alternative in the face of printing limitations, but rather a potential threat to the sijo's identity." Are we to believe the authors are more in-the-know than Bishop Rutt and Professor Kim whose anthologies are completely comprised of the 6-line style? 

The authors further claim that the format "invites further deviation from the tenets of the traditional Korean form." To illustrate how they envision the 
six-line format "devolv(ment)" of sijo, they include one of Rynn Jacobs' sijo that shows a period after each of the six lines. Please. Western poets are 
not children! 

The Eastern Sijo: Who Can Cast the First Stone?

The authors ask "…is one not being hypocritical when s/he renounces the omnifariously deviant, modern sijo of the East, while simultaneously 
espousing, cultivating and/or elevating that which itself may erroneously proceed from an ancient tradition who precise attributes the Western 
practitioner or publisher can only know an approximation of?" (and) "Can we…dismiss and castigate modern Korean poets and publishers whose output does not conform to the classic tenets of this poetic genre?" 

After chastising Western editors and poets for not living up to traditional sijo, the authors suddenly switch gears, defending modified Korean sijo! Talk about confusion? Which leads me to wonder the exact purpose of their paper. Was it written in an honest attempt to honor traditional sijo? Judging 
by their comments and Jacobs' farcical sijo, I think not. The contempt mentioned in their title and reflected in their essay suggests that their sole purpose is to demean any honest attempt to promote sijo in the West. Now, just who is being hypocritical? 

Can we seriously consider criticisms when Robert Watkins and Rynn Jacobs fail to state their qualifications to write about sijo? Where have their sijo been published? I have not seen any of their sijo in the various publications
(other than Rynn Jacobs' sijo in their essay). 

Robert Watkins and Rynn Jacobs seem to ignore obvious realities. Western poets are in a different time and place, hail from a variety of cultures and 
write in the English language, so their sijo are bound to have differences. Although the authors question our honesty re traditional sijo, we are 
attempting to honor this charming poetry form while making room for modern sijo as well. Korean poets have made known their deep appreciation 
for our interest and efforts in the sijo movement. Approval by, continued interest and support from Korean and Western poets is all the 
encouragement required for us to continue.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

SOURCES:

"The Bamboo Grove: An Introduction To Sijo"by Richard Rutt, University of California Press,
1971

"Modern Korean Verse: In Sijo Form" by Professor Jaihiun Kim, Ronsdale Press, 1997

SIJO WEST: For information on how to obtain back issues, contact the Editor:  Larry Gross

LYNX : For information on how to obtain issue Vol. XIV:1, January 1999 in which
the essay in dispute appears, contact the Editor:  Jane Reichhold 
 
 
 

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