Poets push for revival of an old Korean form

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Poets push for revival of an old Korean form


INJE, Gangwon ― It was a recent Saturday afternoon, and Lee Geun-bae, dressed in the pink trousers worn by old Korean scholars, was reciting a statement written on a scroll of rice paper at Manhae Village in Inje.
“The great ancestors of sijo,” he yelled out, “I promise you that sijo, the traditional poetry of our nation, will spread all over our country like the clap of a thunderstorm.”
The reading was followed by a performance by Ahn Suk-seon, a veteran pansori (a vocal musical form) artist, using excerpts from a poem by Han Yong-un, whose pen name was used to name the village.
The venue over the weekend was organized by Korean poets to commemorate the centennial of contemporary Korean sijo, a popular form of Korean poem.
Sijo used to be chanted in royal courts after being turned from lyrical verses into songs. The genre of contemporary sijo began in 1906, when “Hyeoljukga,” meaning a “song of a blood-ridden bamboo,” was published in a vernacular daily with a new style. Placards were hung all over the town over the weekend to celebrate the event.
The quiet rural town of Inje was attended by foreign and domestic poets along with about 500 tourists. The slogan of the event was “Globalizing Sijo.”
Mun Haeng-bok, a professor at National Taiwan Normal University, gave a lecture on the history and future of traditional poems in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Mr. Mun explained that the approximate number of readers of Chinese traditional poems worldwide goes well over 1 million. In contrast, though, he said he suspects that the readers of Korean poems number less than 1,000.
“Confucian teaching focused extensively on poetry in Korean education, because they believed it diminished social violence and bad customs,” he explained. “To avoid the ill symptoms of a society changed by economic development, we need to encourage people to write more poems.”
Susumu Nakanishi, a professor at the Kyoto Metropolitan Arts University, gave a talk on the culture of Japan’s waka, a form of five-line poem that dates back to the 8th century and departed from the more popular Chinese-influenced styles of poetry. “Waka symbolizes the pride of Japan,” he explained.
Sijo, though, is not yet in the emergency room. In a forum titled “Recognizing Contemporary Sijo and Globalization,” Jang Gyeol-ryeol, a professor of English literature at Seoul National University, said that in North America, a substantial number of people are writing sijo in English, and added that the Arizona Poet’s Association and Florida Poet’s Association held literary contests to make poems inspired by Korean sijo.
Lee Geun-bae, a commissioner of World’s National Poems Competition, said, “Sijo has 1,000 years of history with great literary figures such as Jeong Cheol and Yun Seon-do, but it’s true that we’ve underestimated its value.”

by Lee Gyeong-hee
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