Translator’s note: On Kisaeng Poems

The kisaeng were a female courtesan class in dynastic Korea. They belonged to the lowest caste as slaves but trained in the arts to entertain the elite. Thus, kisaeng poetry was enjoyed as ephemeral entertainment, not afforded the careful preservation given to the same poetic forms written by the predominantly male, scholar-official (or yangban) class.

Hwang Jini (1506–1560) is perhaps the representative kisaeng icon in Korean popular culture. She was considered exceptional during her time for her beauty, intellect and poetry, but her renown has been celebrated more actively in film and television re-imaginings. Yi Maechang (1573–1610) was also noted for her prolific sijo and musical skills. Her literary talent was recognized by such literary male contemporaries as Heo Gyun (attributed author of the novel Hong Gildong jeon). However, neither kisaeng poet has been recognized globally as a significant literary figure beyond her time.

The sijo is a traditional lyric verse form of three lines: theme, development and a conclusion with a sort of volta. Each line averages 14 to 16 syllables for a total of 44 to 48 syllables. Sijo was often associated with the kisaeng because they would perform them with musical and/or percussive accompaniment. But Hwang Jini and Yi Maechang also wrote hansi, Sino-Korean poems influ­enced by classical Chinese poetry and associated with the yangban class as an intellectual poetic form. Therefore, it was unexpected and impressive for a kisaeng to write hansi.

These sijo translations retain the narrative progression and do not exceed 48 total syllables. Each line of the Korean is translated into a non-rhyming couplet, resulting in a six-line poem in English. The hansi translations prioritize meaning over meter. Though each line of a hansi usually contains the same number of syllables, those translated here do not strictly adhere to this structure but attempt to create a rhythmical reading pace in English.