삼행시 (samhaengshi): Korean Acrostic Poems

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Author: Anna Franco Ucar

Poetry is perhaps one of the purest artistic forms, since through it we usually try to explain in just a few words the world in which we live and the meaning of life. Present in both the educated and popular spheres, poetry can express this in a transcendental, humorous, or aesthetic way, or even as a game or riddle. It is a mode of expression that is inherent to human beings, and that is why in multiple places and cultures around the world we can find various styles of short poetry. In the West, compositions such as the sonnet (Italy), the couplet (France) and the limerick (England), among others, stand out. In the East, some notable examples include lǜshī (China), haiku and tanka (Japan) and sijo (Korea). However, although these latter forms remain very popular today, they have also paved the way for a new type of poem that is taking South Korea by storm: 삼행시 (samhaengshi), Korean acrostic poems.

Acrostics are poems of a generally short length in which the first letter (or sometimes the middle or end) of each verse forms a hidden word or message. These have been used mostly in love letters, odes, dedications and forms of dissent, and it is a style present in several languages and cultures due to its versatility, in addition to the ingenuity required for its composition. The Korean version is relatively more complex than, for example, the Spanish or English version, given that Korean is a syllabic language, that is, it groups letters into blocks to form each syllable. For this reason, since each verse must begin with a syllable of the chosen hidden word, and the poem in general must make some sense grammatically and semantically, the options are a little more limited.

Korean acrostic poems or 삼행시 (sam, three; haeng, line; shi, poem), as their name suggests, usually consist of three verses, since they are often formed from a proper noun and Korean names have, in general, three syllables. In the case that the name, word, or hidden message contains two, four, or five syllables, the poem would be called 이행시 (eehaengshi), 사행시 (sahaengshi) and 오행시 (ohaengshi), respectively.

Acrostic poem for the 삼행시 challenge from the Ministry of Culture, Sport and Tourism of South Korea. Photo taken from KOCIS

Since approximately 1980, these poems have been a major cultural phenomenon in South Korea, forming part of literary exercises, social gatherings, and, especially, television entertainment programs. You will hardly find a variety show in which the celebrity guest is not asked to improvise an acrostic. Audiences love to see their favourite artists creating imaginative poems based on their names or, in the case of K-Pop idols, the name of the group or name of the title track of their most recent comeback. These poetry compositions put into practice not only the artist’s creativity, but also their mental agility. Some idols are so good at improvising acrostics that their creations end up being very memorable and iconic for their fans. Among them, Stray Kids’ main rappers, Han and Changbin, stand out. Their rapping speed is also reflected in their ability to think quickly, as well as their talent for wordplay, something that is very distinctive of the group. One of Han’s best-known acrostics is this one dedicated to his fellow member, 서창빈 (Seo Changbin):

창빈 (Seo Changbin)

빈아 (Changbin-ah)

정 상했냐? 형이라고 안 불러서? (¿Aren’t you offended? ¿Because I didn’t call you “hyung”?)

[Seo Changbin]

[Binjeong sanghaetnya? Hyeongirago an bulleoseo?]

Also, this one from Changbin, dedicated to their fans, STAY (스테이):

펙타클하다! 항상 (¡Spectacular! ¿Always)

어났을 때부터 그랬나?* (have you been like this since you were born?)

렇게 이뻤어?! (¿Were you this pretty?)

*테 and 태 are pronounced the same way.

[Seupektakeulhada! Hangsang]
[Taeonasseul ttaebuteo geuraetna?]
[Eereotge ibbeosseo?!]

Photo taken from YouTube

Another idol known for his hilarious acrostic poems is Joshua, one of the vocalists of Seventeen (SVT). Although at first glance he may seem like someone very calm and measured, the rest of the group agrees that he is the craziest, since he always acts in unexpected ways, surprising and causing laughter among both the other members and the fans. Recently, during the promotion of “FML” album’s title track “송오공 (Super)”, SVT’s vocal line appeared on television and they were asked to promote the song in a witty way. Everyone seemed embarrassed, so DK (Dokyeom), laughing, did not hesitate to present Joshua as a volunteer. He then got his revenge by improvising a creative acrostic in which he almost revealed DK’s entire phone number in front of the whole audience, leaving everyone perplexed and unable to contain their laughter:

오공을 많이 들어주시면 (If you listen to 송오공 (Super)” a lot,)

늘 도겸이의 번호를 알려드리겠습니다 (today I will reveal Dokyeom’s number.)

일공에 삼칠칠삼에… (010-3773-…)

[Sonogongeul manhi deureojushimyeon]

[Oneul Dokyeomi-e beonhoreul allyeodeurigetseumnida]

[Gong-il-gong-e sam-chil-chil-sam-e…]

Photo taken from YouTube

Korean acrostic poems are, without a doubt, a great success that is transcending the barriers of South Korea. So, if you think this is a fun activity and you would like to practice Korean in a more original and entertaining way, dare to create your own 삼행시 (samhaengshi), and don’t forget to leave your favourites in the comments down below!

Reading pair: Karen Bisbicus

Revised by: Marisol Montiel

Hyunjincvlt. (2020, April 4). just a compliation of han jisung’s acrostic poems [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RmDgPZq4x88&t=105s

KOCIS. (2020, October 21). 한글날 기념 삼행시 짓기 챌린지 (Hangeul day 3-lines-poem challenge). 해외문화홍보원. https://www.kocis.go.kr/kocc/view.do?seq=1036278&page=257&pageSize=10&photoPageSize=6&totalCount=0&searchType=menu0023&searchText=

MasterClass. (2019, December 13). 9 short poetic forms to know with examples. https://www.masterclass.com/articles/short-poetic-forms-to-know

Mnet K-POP. (2023, April 27). [EN/JP] ‘컴백 인터뷰‘ with 세븐틴 (SEVENTEEN) #엠카운트다운 EP.794 | Mnet 230427 방송 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gURhTZKDC3Y

STRAY K SUBS. (2020, October 30). [ENG SUB] Stray Kids’ ‘N Acrostic Poem’ Writing Contest Mission! | #ShowChampionBehind | EP.182 [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvBPWJ3iXak

Talk To Me In Korean. (2016, June 25). Korean Word Game: How To Make 삼행시 (Three-Line Poems) [TalkToMeInKorean] [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96KWZOESzoU

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