MODERN KOREAN VERSE: IN SIJO FORM, Selected and Translated by Jaihiun Kim, Edited by Ronald B. Hatch, Ronsdale Press 1997. Perfectbound, paper, 252 pp., indexes. $16.95  plus $2.00 postage. Canadians add 7% GST. Order at your bookstore or from Ronsdale Press, 3350 West 21st Ave., Vancouver, BC,  Canada V6S 1G7

Review by Elizabeth St Jacques

Regarded as the leading translator of Korean poetry, Professor Jaihiun Kim teaches English literature at the University of Ajou, Korea. A distinguished poet, he has authored a large number of books in Korean and English. MODERN KOREAN VERSE, created as a companion to his "Classical Korean Poetry" (1986), showcases 376 sijo by 67 "major and promising" poets whose works were published from the 1900s to the 1990s. 

A variety of sijo forms are in this collection including p'yong sijo (plain, individual). While many individual sijo reflect the classical form, changes to the form are evident: some sijo contain fewer or more syllables than the traditional 43-46 syllables, with line lengths ranging from very short to extra lengthy. Run-on lines are frequently seen here as well. Though these sijo are often superb in content, overly long lines are less attractive visually to this reviewer. For example:


Weather-beaten for a millenium,
the stone buddha stands fresh like a lotus bloom:
the corner stone remains
after a cathedral has crumbled away.
I wish to create a poem
that outlasts the stone. 
(pg. 210 ) - Cho Tong-Hwa, b. 1949

Also contrary to most classical sijo, titles accompany all sijo here. Unfortunately, too often a title fails to provide new insight, simply repeating from the poem, thereby spoiling the surprise finale. All forms of sijo appear in a 6-line format that is more conducive to Western publishers.

Modifications to the sijo form have been unfolding in Korea since the early 1900s. In 1919, ten years after the Japanese occupation that virtually crushed Korean identity, Ch'oe Namson's efforts to revive classical sijo were met with enthusiasm. In 1925 however, Yi Pyong-gi (considered the father of modern sijo) along with other poets felt the sijo was in need of modernizing. New rules gave birth, including "sijo must convey the complexities of modern life by extending its structure, if necessary, from the conventional single stanza to two or more ." Yi Pyong-gi' also stressed that each sijo in a multi-stanza sijo not stand alone (as in classical forms) but rather meld with other stanzas to create a complete poem.

To illustrate, Professor Kim includes samplings of several modern ossijo (medium length), sasol sijo (long), and yon-sijo (linked). Yi Un-sang, another strong defender who believed in "departing from the straight-jacket form of the classical sijo," initiated the seven-line sijo, yangjang sijo (two lines) and tangjang sijo (one line) , both of which few poets have adopted. 

ID RATHER GO BLIND (yangjang sijo)

I try in vain to see my beloved,
she appears only in dreams.

If I can see her only with my eyes closed,
Id rather go blind.
(pg. 23) Yi Un-Sang (1903-1982)

While a beautiful Oriental tone flows through the majority of poems to make for highly pleasurable reading in this collection, some work here seems closer to free verse than sijo. 

Despite the opinion of scholars such as Cho Yun-je who oppose extreme changes to the sijo form, feeling they "violate the original concept and function of sijo," a large number of Korean poets are enthusiastically embracing modifications obviously borrowed from Western poetry. 

As we begin this new millennium, changes in sijo seem justified and inevitable. Nevertheless, the thought that the traditional form of sijo Korea's richest literary treasure is under threat of becoming an endangered species gives cause for concern. One hopes that, just as Ch'oe Namson and others once rescued this charming poetry form from extinction, some poets within Korea (and other countries) will follow in their footsteps. But can the past and future live happily under one roof? In the case of humanity, most would agree that older and younger generations are able to work through their differences and respect each other. Surely, we can expect the same of poetry.

One thing is clear: the 67 poets in this handsome collection (8 are female) are highly talented, and exhibit a strong sense of language, culture and originality. Professor Jaihiun Kim is to be applauded for this huge body of work and for enlightening us to changes in Korean sijo. It has been a most enlightening journey for this reviewer.


You've gone, my beloved, across
the pass in the mountain,
sorrow held against your heart
that hurts more than a philomel's cry.
Again yesterday I climbed to the pass
and plucked azaleas.
(pg. 51) - Yi Ho-u, 1912-1970


Unfolding as you may
your wish will not be granted.
Have you fallen into nostalgia
for the land of your birth?
Your mind rolls up, entangled,
and your leaves are riven to ribbons.
(pg. 24) Cho Un (1900 196?)


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