I think this might be doomed to fail ;-)

Because I’m guessing the United States isn’t “ready for Sijo.”

Harvard Professor David McCann clearly shares an interest in Korean Literature, but I’m afraid he is a popularizer who doesn’t get what is going to sell to the US public. McCann wants to try to sell Sijo (A form of Korean poetry) to the US public. I’d like to go to pains to point out that I’m glad he’s trying it, and since it is his thing, he shouldn’t stop, but the results he seems to envision seem rather unlikely.

He begins with a great point about how initial experience to a culture can pave the way for substantial additional contact later.


“Students who have a haiku day, when they grow up and see a Japanese novel, they’ll be interested,’’ McCann says. “There could also be a sijo day. Children might find sijo something they can try, then one day see a Korean novel translated and say, ‘I can read it.’

Although it is a point that skips over the tremendous numerical disparity between translations of Japanese and Korean novels.

But Sijo, really? To take on Haiku and consequently lead to reading literature?

I doubt it for several reasons

First, Haiku

a) Already owns this spot
b) is shorter (thus easier to write)
c) is a more didactic form (thus both easier to judge the “success” of and less complicated to think about)
d) Is way simpler. Sijo is a traditional poem of 43 to 45 syllables whose third line contains a twist on the theme developed in the first two.

These are massive advantages that the Sijo probably can’t overcome. Haiku is just about perfect for school kids (and it is at school kids that McCann partially aims).

Second, and far worse, Sijo translation or marketing of Sijo is a repetition of the essential translation or marketing failure that Korean Literature has perpetrated upon itself for years. It focuses on very narrow academic niches that have little or no impact.

Third, if the market for the novel is shrinking, the market for published poetry in the West is shrunk. At least books can still become bestsellers, or better, turned into movies, which is really how culture (alas) is currently translated. One “The Host” or “Oldboy” is worth twenty volumes of poetry in terms of getting the name of Korea out there in the world.

I can’t find at the moment, but need to dig up, the Korean critic who overdid it a bit by saying that Korea needs to publish an international “Da Vinci Code.” The guy was aiming low, but at least he realized that it is the mass market that Korea needs to address,

Also, I have grave doubts about this claim

Now, McCann posits, Korea’s time has come. A so-called “Korean Wave’’ of exported television shows, movies, and musicians is attracting attention across Asia and beyond. “Winter Sonata’’ has been a TV hit around Asia, pop singer Rain has played Madison Square Garden, and Park Chan-wook’s “Old Boy’’ won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004.

Since it seems (Note – this is, as the Violent Femmes once sang, “only a guess”) to be coming clear that Hallyu (The Korean Wave) may have crested.


Or worse, check, out Korea’s own website on the “wave” which by page 2 is reduced to touting the fact that movies shown in Korea, have English subtitles, and counting US citizens of Korean ethnicity as part of the wave (Really, Sandra Oh is part of a Korean wave? Denzel Washington must be part of the African wave, by that logic).

Finally, the article itself notes three similar, quite unsuccesful, attempts at the same popularization in the last 17 years.

With all that said, good luck to the Professor, and I certainly hope he proves me wrong. 😉

3 thoughts on “I think this might be doomed to fail ;-)

  1. Gezz, I could never even remember how many of what made up a Haiku. How on earth am I going to rememebr 53 (what-EVER!) lines with a twist!

    The only thing I want with a twist is a gin and tonic…..


  2. I only just now spotted your post. Really a good one, on the mark, critical but encouraging– Quite a combo. Thanks.

    Re yersis, my thought exactly! Except three lines w twist made me think of a martini. for which see p 37 of my book of sijo, Urban Temple.

    And Cheeyas!

    Dr. D

  3. Professor McCann,

    I think it’s clear I come from a marketing background?^^

    It’s good to see any and all of Korean literature in the Western press, but I think it’s going to be the Shin Kyung-sook’s of this world who put it over the top.

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