Friday, October 05, 2007

Tap Dancing on the Roof -- a Poetry Friday post

Last weekend, while I was at the Eastern PA SCBWI Fall Philly conference, I participated in the raffle. The raffle at the Fall Philly is wonderful, because everyone brings stuff for the raffle table (editors and attendees). For five dollars, you can buy one ticket; for $20, you get five. The money goes to scholarship funds. If your number is pulled, you go to the table and pick one thing — anything you want. I picked Tap Dancing on the Roof with my first winning ticket.

The full name of the book is Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems), and it's by Linda Sue Park, with illustrations by Istvan Banyai. I've been excited to get my hands on this one since Lee Bennett Hopkins mentioned its forthcoming existence at the LA SCBWI conference. I'm not only excited because it's by Linda Sue, who I know to be an excellent craftsman, but also because it's a new form (to me).

Here's a sijo entitled "Long Division," from which the title of the book is derived:

Long Division
by Linda Sue Park

This number gets a wall and a ceiling. Nice and comfy in there.
But a bunch of other numbers are about to disrupt the peace——
bumping the wall, digging up the cellar, tap dancing on the roof.


I wish you could see the illustration for this one (a two-page spread in black and white and grey, with some of the characters and forms you see in the cover, including the little division "house."

Sijo is a traditional Korean form of poetry dating from more than 25 centuries ago. They are descended from a type of song praising the seasons, but quite a long time ago they were split off from actual songs and accepted as a poetic form, and the need to link to the seasons was dispensed with — any topic will do. According to Linda Sue's author's note, "In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women who worked as singers and entertainers for the king and his court developed a tradition of sijo written about love and romance. The body of work created by these courtesans——many of them anonymous——makes sijo one of the few poetic forms with a strong legacy of women poets."

Sijo are traditionally written in three lines, each of which serves its own purpose. Each line is supposed to have a fixed number of stressed syllables, which makes it similar to haiku in a way (fixed number of beats) and dissimilar in another way (in Korean, it's not the actual number of syllables, but the actual number of stressed syllables, per line that matters, as I understand it — I hope Linda Sue or someone else will correct me if I'm wrong!).

Number and purpose of lines
Traditionally, there are three lines:
1. The first line introduces the topic
2. The second line develops or expands on the topic
3. The third line has some sort of twist: "humor or irony, an unexpected image, a pun, or a play on words." Just because humor, puns and plays on words are acceptable as final lines does not mean that all sijo are humorous.

Number of syllables per line
Each line has seven stressed syllables, and falls into two "halves": one with three stressed syllables and one with four (or, one with four stressed syllables and one with three, depending on how the line breaks). The line doesn't require a comma or complete caesura*, but breaks naturally due to its metre. In English, this usually results in each line containing 14 to 16 syllables.

Also, because of the natural break in the middle of the line, some poets actually physically break the line, resulting in a sijo written in six lines (each containing three or four stressed syllables). Tap Dancing on the Roof contains sijo split both ways. There is still a third opinion on sijo, and some translators opt for a five-line structure that more closely matches the old Korean songs that were the genesis of sijo.

Here's one from Jung Mong Ju, who lived during the 14th century, translated into the 5-line format:

My body may die, again and again
One hundred times again, and
May turn into but a pile of bones and dust,
My soul may or may not live on, but
My loyalty to my country shall remain unchanged for ever.


What's its title? Well, it doesn't have one. Traditionally, sijo, like haiku, are title-less, but some modern poets use titles now and again.

Here's a six-line version, which (inside the book) is set on a grey page, but on the back of the book, well, see for yourself:



My personal favorite in the book is "Word Watch", a six-line sijo which uses the word "sesquipedalian". And it's got the cutest illustration to go with it, too!

If you think I'm excited about this book, you're right. First off, it's Linda Sue's first published poetry collection. Which is not to say that she hasn't written poetry before. When I heard her speak at the SCBWI Conference in New England in 2006, she spoke about how she's always written poetry just for herself. She said something like "If you can write poetry, you can write anything." Amen to that, sister.

Go. Find this book and learn about a new (very old) poetic form. And hey, someone consider nominating it for a CYBILS award, won't you?

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