Majken Johansson was one of the most notable poets of the second half of the twentieth century. Having made a name for herself in the 1950s as an academic and acerbic modernist poet, from 1958 onwards she became known as the Salvation Army soldier of Swedish contemporary poetry.
Majken Johansson’s biological mother, Elsa Johansson, was a single waitress in Malmö, who had moved there on her own from Alvesta in Småland. Majken’s father was the general merchant Einar Ydén from Vetlanda whom Elsa Johansson had met while on his business trips to Malmö. Majken was temporarily given away as a baby due to her mother’s dire financial circumstances. She was thus brought up by lorry driver Nils Grip and his wife at Möllevången in Malmö until she was 13 years old. She then moved back home to her biological mother.
Majken Johansson had been poorly treated in her foster home and soon developed both psychological difficulties and a destructive alcoholic tendency. Despite this she was scholastically gifted and after gaining her lower secondary school certificate in Malmö she attended upper secondary school at Lund cathedral school. On completion of her studies there she enrolled at Lund University in the autumn of 1949 and later graduated with a Master’s degree in pedagogics, theoretical philosophy, Nordic languages and English.
On the outside her student years seemed very successful. In addition to her studies, Majken Johansson was a member of the student literary association, from which the so-called “Lundaskolan” (the Lund school) emerged to become a focal centre of contemporary Swedish poetry, including the likes of Göran Printz-Påhlson, Ingemar Gustafson, Anna Rydstedt, Åsa Wohlin and Bo Strömstedt. Majken Johansson served as the president of the association for some time. Along with her fellow colleagues Majken Johansson gained media exposure through the newly established Kvällsposten where she, only 20 years old, reviewed both fiction and scientific literature. In 1952 she published her first poetry collection Buskteater in Bonnier’s small lyrical poetry series, and it was well-received by the national press.
Johansson’s early poetry is marked by the linguistic consciousness and educated scepticism which the Lundaskolan poets became known for. The poems in Buskteater are typical of the outsider’s perspective which characterizes lyrical modernism. Her most well-known lines of poetry – “My name / is Ma-haha-jken / Joha-honsson” from the very first poem of her collection – can be seen as her own version of aesthetically distancing herself from the attitudes toward life and language use of the majority of the population. From her distanced position she laughs, shrill and joylessly, at both herself and her surroundings.
Taking this stance was not merely an aesthetic and intellectual decision for Majken Johansson. She also experienced alienation to a high degree. During her student years at Lund she bore the heavy emotional baggage of her social and psychological difficulties. Her alcohol abuse became full-fledged alcoholism while she was at university, and her psychological condition deteriorated rapidly. In the spring of 1951 she attempted suicide and was committed to Malmö Östra hospital. When she moved to Stockholm in 1953 it was in order to escape her destructive habits and lethal social environment.
Initially the move resulted in a more miserable situation, and after less than a year in the capital city she attempted suicide again. The following year saw a major change, however: through a personal ad in Dagens Nyheter she met the love of her life, Solveig Borg, and she began to seriously get to grips with her substance abuse. At the same time she finished her second collection of poems, I grund och botten, which was published in 1956 and cemented her position as one of the most important poets of the younger generation. Her life-changing love affair entailed somewhat of a new sense of belonging but also deepened her sense of alienation: this was partly due to the fact that Solveig Borg was a woman, and partly because she was 22 years older than Majken Johansson. In addition, Solveig Borg was an established businesswoman – director of AB Specialpapper – and she could not allow their relationship to become common knowledge.
The relationship only lasted one year and ended catastrophically when Solveig Borg committed suicide in August 1956. Following this event the rest of Majken Johansson’s life was marked by sorrow and longing. It also left a huge mark on her poetry. Poems about her beloved partner can be found in all her collections from Andens undanflykt, 1958, to Djup ropar till djup, 1989. Majken Johansson chose to keep Solveig Borg anonymous throughout – in the poems she is non-gendered and called simply “S”. Despite Majken Johansson’s openness about her great grief in many interviews for the weekly press, radio and on TV, she always managed to keep her partner’s gender a secret.
Solveig Borg’s death sent Majken Johansson into a deeply confused state, but it also led to a new challenge: seeking signs that the souls of the dead lived on. This search led her to attend many séances in Stockholm, Copenhagen and London, where Majken Johansson tried to make contact with the spirit world through mediums. It also led to an open attitude toward religion. During the years after her partner’s death Majken Johansson made approaches to a number of different religious societies and in the spring of 1958 this bore fruit. During a religious service at the seventh brigade of the Salvation Army in Södermalm in Stockholm she had a deep experience of God’s presence. Her conversion was complete.
In August 1958 Majken Johansson entered into the so-called “solace debate” in Dagens Nyheter. Beppe Wolgers had posed the question of where the modern human can find solace, and Olof Lagercrantz had dismissed the entire issue as naïve nonsense. Majken Johansson’s was the third input: she had found solace on her knees before Jesus Christ. The article became a matter of national importance: “Majken Johansson admits her Christian faith”, ran the headline in Dagens Nyheter. In November of that year she became a soldier of the Salvation Army. Between these two events her collection of poems entitled Andens undanflykt was published which is completely devoid of any Christian poetry. The poems had been written before her conversion, and during the summer of 1958 Majken Johansson had hummed and hawed over whether to publish them or not given the turn her life had taken. In the end she decided that the texts could be accepted as an honest representation of her period of questioning before her conversion.
Her next collection Liksom överlämnad, 1965, contains noticeable influences of her Christian faith but it was not until her poems in Omtal, 1969, that the Salvation Army itself recognized that Majken Johansson had fully engaged herself as a poet of their Army. A review in Stridsropet highlighted that the latest poems were illustrative of the poet’s post-conversion existence, while her earlier poetry testified to the hard journey toward it. At the end of the 1960s Majken Johansson had become, in her own words, a genuine “[Salvation] Army trophy”. She had been an established element in Swedish cultural life before she signed up and her poetic nimbus was of great benefit to the society’s operations. She appeared frequently in the weekly press, radio and on TV right until her death as a representative of the Salvation Army, dressed in her uniform and always prepared to burst into a joyous “Hallelujah”.
After her conversion Majken Johansson worried that people would find her poetry had been weakened by her belief in God and her engagement with the Salvation Army. This was not the case. Her poetry collections continued to be positively received after her conversion. She successfully remained active and visible as a Salvation Army soldier and respected poet, both within and outside religious circles. Her poetry did not fundamentally change after her conversion. Naturally, the religious themes and many references to biblical aspects became new elements in the latter half of her poetry output, but the poetic features she had become known for in the early 1950s – linguistic playfulness and dramatic leaps from high to low, abstract to concrete, serious to comical – are just as influential in Liksom överlämnad, Omtal, Från Magdala: fragment ur en självbiografi, 1972, and Djup roper till djup.
Her conversion did not lead to the resolution of Majken Johansson’s health issues. She often felt pushed to remind the public that the Christian faith is no guarantee for feeling good. The papers that survive her also reveal that psychological illness and alcohol abuse remained serious problems throughout her life. She frequently relapsed and heavily so. Ultimately, her life-long substance abuse caused her death, which came as a result of a burst membrane of the heart. Majken Johansson’s remaining poems, collected in the posthumous volume Otroheten och andra dikter, largely written in the 1970s and 1980s, give insight into an extremely difficult existence. Belief in God provides a certain basic strength in most of them. One of them ends with a mixture of darkness, hope and playfulness, in a manner typical of Majken Johansson: “Hallelujah, ANYWAY!”
Majken Johansson died in 1993.