A Basic Guide to Writing Sijo

The sijo (Korean 시조, pronounced SHEE-jo) is a traditional three-line Korean poetic form typically exploring cosmological, metaphysical, or pastoral themes. Organized both technically and thematically by line and syllable count, sijo are expected to be phrasal and lyrical, as they are first and foremost meant to be songs.

Sijo are written in three lines, each averaging 14-16 syllables for a total of 44-46 syllables. Each line is written in four groups of syllables that should be clearly differentiated from the other groups, yet still flow together as a single line. When written in English, sijo may be written in six lines, with each line containing two syllable groupings instead of four. Additionally, as shown in the example below, liberties may be taken (within reason) with the number of syllables per group as long as the total syllable count for the line remains the same. However, it is strongly recommended that the third line consistently begin with a grouping of three syllables.

The first line is usually written in a 3-4-4-4 grouping pattern and states the theme of the poem, where a situation is generally introduced.

The second line is usually written in a 3-4-4-4 pattern (similar to the first) and is an elaboration of the first line's theme or situation (development).

The third line is divided into two sections. The first section, the counter-theme, is grouped as 3-5, while the second part, considered the conclusion of the poem, is written as 4-3. The counter-theme is called the 'twist,' which is usually a surprise in meaning, sound, or other device.

Example: excerpt from "Song of my five friends"

Yun Seondo (1587-1671)

You ask how many friends I have? Water and stone, bamboo and pine. (2-6-4-4)
The moon rising over the eastern hill is a joyful comrade. (2-4-4-6)
Besides these five companions, what other pleasure should I ask? (2-5, 5-3)

Advice from Prof. Mark Peterson

“The structure is important, but I always allow for poetic license, meaning that sometimes the message is more important than the structure. But a poem can be eliminated if the structure is too far off base ... I really like the three-beat start to the third line.

Word choice is important. Some poems used a word that seemed beyond the argot of the writer and was not quite the right word in nuance, if not in actual definition. Sometimes the right word in the right place is a zinger, really powerful.

Imagery. Some poems capture an image so effectively – you can see the image. Some poems miss in that the image or message is lost in vague and ambiguous wording and imagery. They seem to try too hard to be flowery or emotional and the message is unclear. Clarity is essential.

Emotion. Poetry, in sijo or any form, has to capture an emotion and transfer that feeling to the reader. Some poetic emotion is in the category of sadness – loss, loneliness, abandonment, insult, being ostracized. Happiness – love, acceptance, success, accomplishment. The thing about sijo, more so than haiku, is that the form can capture a wide range of emotions.”

Mark Peterson is Professor Emeritus of Korean history, literature and language from Brigham Young University. He is a frequent judge of the Sejong Writing Competition sijo category and board member of the Sejong Cultural Society.

Further reading:

Sijo Primer (an introduction for those new to sijo) by Larry Gross (.pdf)
Structure of the Korean Sijo by David McCann (.pdf)

Sijo lectures by David McCann
Part 1: form and structure
Part 2: history
Part 3: sample analysis of sijo

Sijo lecture series by Mark Peterson
Lecture 1: Rhythm of sijo and classic masterpieces
Lecture 2: Correcting sijo
Lecture 3: Teaching sijo through mimicry
Lecture 4: Creating sijo from other texts
Lecture 5: Sijo and haiku