A-Z / K-L / Poems in Korean Middle School Textbooks / Poetry Translation

Balsam Flower – Kim Sang-ok

Balsam Flower

Kim Sang-ok (1920-2004)


After rain, balsam flower opens half-way among potteries.
Shall I watch the blooming flower by myself every year?
Let’s write a detailed story to my sister.

Would my sister sob or laugh as she reads the letter?
She may yearn for home that is vivid before her eyes
And the day she dyed our fingernails with the flower.

As we sat face to face in the sun, she fastened the string to my fingers
with the light red nails on her white fingers.
As though I see them in my dream, only my sinews become tense.

(Translated by Jido Ahn. January 2016)


Learn more about the poet: Kim Sang-ok (1920-2004)


김상옥 (1920-2004)

비 오자 장독 간에 봉선화 반만 벌어
해마다 피는 꽃을 나만 두고 볼 것인가
세세한 사연을 적어 누님께로 보내자.

누님이 편지 보며 하마 울까 웃으실까
눈앞에 삼삼이는 고향 집을 그리시고
손톱에 꽃물 들이던 그 날 생각하시리.

양지에 마주 앉아 실로 찬찬히 매어 주던
하얀 손 가락 가락이 연붉은 그 손톱을
지금은 꿈 속에 보듯 힘줄만이 서노나.


This poem appears in 7th grade Korean textbook.


The genre of this poem is “modern sijo“. Sijo is a Korean traditional fixed verse. It was first emerged in Goryeo period (918 BCE-1392 BCE), and widely used in Joseon dynasty. Sijo are still written and enjoyed by modern Koreans.

Korean sijo puts emphasis on the number of syllables. Here’s the counts in a traditional sijo: 3/4/3/4 // 3/4/3/4 // 3/5/4/3.  There are three lines in sijo, and “//” indicates the division of line. All together, a sijo typically has around 45 syllables. If you have summed up all the numbers above already, you might ask why 45, not 43? I said 45, because there often are a letter or two added to lines. The concept of restricting syllables in sijo wasn’t as strict as in Chinese wujue or Japanese haiku. Also, aristocrats tended to adhere to the rule more faithfully than poets of poets of other backgrounds.

Modern sijo poets tend to be more flexible with the syllabic restriction than in the past. However, even if there’s a couple more or less syllables in the lines, these two rules are always adhered: the first group of syllables of the last (third) line are always three. Also, there are five or more syllables for the second group of the last line.

Of course, it was impossible to retain the rhythm created by the syllabic system of sijo in the translation. If you know how to read Korean letters, I recommend you to read the original poem out loud, even if you don’t understand the meaning.

photo source: Joong-ang Ilbo

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