What is a Sijo?

An examination of the history, form and use of Sijo; a traditional style of Korean poetry.

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Sijo is a form of Korean poetry with a far-reaching history, tied heavily to the shifting cultures of the Korean peninsula.


Sijo first emerged as a form in the 14th Century, at the tail end of the Korean Goryeo dynasty. However, it wasn’t until the later Joseon dynasty that it gained popularity. Sijo were first crafted by members of the ruling class—or Yangban—in Chinese, which was the official written language of the Korean Peninsula at the time.

Sijo of this era were often performed as song by Kisaeng, the legally enslaved courtesans and entertainers of the upper-class. However, Sijo Chang (literally short song) required a great degree of technical proficiency and co-ordination between the performers and drummer. Due to the brevity of the Sijo, Sijo Chang are drawn out, and have been called “the slowest song,” requiring the singer to draw on techniques such as heavy vibrato and complex pitch changes.

Chinese characters (Hanja) had traditionally been used in Korea since their introduction in the 5th Century. However, many native phonetic writing systems existed, some predating the Chinese alphabet by hundreds of years. The incompatibility of the native systems and Chinese characters saw many of the Korean underclass remain functionally illiterate. To combat this, Sejong the Great (fourth king of the Joseon dynasty), created the Hangul alphabet, specifically designed to be easy to learn and master. Many of the country’s scholars and elites saw this new alphabet as a direct threat to their status and resisted its use, though in the 16th Century it became widely used.

This new alphabet, and the resulting cultural pride, saw Koreans from all walks of life begin to write Sijo. Historically, Sijo had propagated an upper-class narrative, but the writers brought to poetry by the Hangul alphabet would use the form to address all manner of subjects.

Shortly after this, Korean became open to the wider world due to the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1876. Prior to this, Korea was an isolated kingdom; but with encroaching Western exploration, the removal of the country’s Regent, and heavy pressure from Japan, Korea became a tributary nation of Japan. The treaty signed between the two nations saw trade begin to take place between Japan and Korea, although many consider it to have be wildly unfair and its ramifications can still be felt today in the retaliatory policy of the DPRK, Juche.

Sijo in the period following the treaty are considered to be Modern Sijo, moving away from the musical origins of Traditional Sijo and establishing it firmly as a literary form.

Sijo continued to flourish throughout ‘The Open-door Period’ (1876), The Empire of Korea (1897–1910), Japanese Colonial Period (1910–1945), and the modern day, often seen as a cousin of the Haiku.

In 1986, the journal Poet dedicated an entire issue to Sijo translated by Korean-American poet Kim Unsong. This was followed by Classical Korean Poems (Sijo) in 1987, Sijo by Korean Poets in China, and Poems of Modern Sijo (a collection of his original work) in the mid-1990s. These books would find favour with Canadian Haiku poet Elizabeth St Jacques, who later produced Around the Tree of Light, a collection of original English-language Sijo. From here St Jacques partnered with publisher Dr Larry Goss to produce Sijo West, the first English-language journal dedicated to Sijo, which further attracted attention from fans of Haiku and other Asian forms of poetry, before folding after five issues.


Sijo, like Haiku, are built upon a three-line structure with a focus on syllable counts rather than meter.

Each line of a Sijo averages between 14-16 syllables, for a total of between 44 and 46 syllables.

In line one, the subject or theme of the poem is introduced. Line two develops the theme further or changes the perspective. Like Haiku, this line is most attractive when it is the longest, though this can subverted when it serves the purpose of highlighting a later point of the poem.

The final line presents either a twist or a concluding statement.

Within each line, there is a pause that falls around the halfway point, resembling a caesura, though this is not a mathematically precise occurrence; it can happen wherever feels most appropriate.

In the West, printing restriction led to some Sijo being split along these half line breaks, creating six-line poems. Kim Unsong experimented heavily with the form, using the six-line structure and introducing end-rhyme between these newly form couplets.

As poems with a music origin, the melody of the line is something that should be considered. If a line does not possess a pleasing sonic quality, it is not right for a Sijo.

Visually, the poet should attempt to use only what punctuation is necessary, as by their nature Sijo can appear cluttered when consideration is not applied.


Sijo are used to explore many topics, though a common trend is profound or humorous revelation. As a relative of the Haiku, Sijo can be used to explore the smallest instances or the widest scenes, although Sijo are more forgiving. Their considerations are not as strict and you have more syllables to play with, giving rise to further opportunities.

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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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