Sonja Åkesson was the most prominent Swedish poet of the 1960s, leading in the innovative use of vernacular language in poetry. She enjoyed a twenty-year span of publication, from her debut in 1957 until the posthumous release of Hästens öga in 1977. During this period she published twelve collections of poetry, a novel, a collection of short stories, a children’s book, a collection of songs and about ten plays.
Sonja Åkesson was born in Buttle in Gotland, a small village built up around a railway station, where her father was the stationmaster. When her father was promoted the family moved to the nearby Havdhem. This environment is portrayed in her most famous poem “Sälvbiografi” from 1963. When she was 13 Sonja Åkesson had already begun to work as a maid at a confectioner’s in Havdhem. Her brother, however, went to school and eventually became trained as an engineer at Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (the Royal Institute of Technology). Sonja Åkesson would resent her lack of formal education and her brother’s unfair advantage for the rest of her life. She worked as a waitress, receptionist, shop assistant and office worker in Hemse and Visby.
In 1948 Sonja Åkesson married the carpenter Nils Westberg and they had two children together. She then began a love affair with a married man, which led to another pregnancy and divorce. Sonja Åkesson was forced to leave her two children with relatives in Gotland and moved in with her parents in Stockholm. Her third child died of leukaemia aged only two.
Following this tragic development Sonja Åkesson set out on a path of self-education by taking various evening classes and correspondence courses. Her first course was on modern poetry, taught by Björn Julén. She continued with a course called “Write whatever you want” by Reidar Ekner. This turned out to be a group tailor-made for her. Reidar Ekner helped her to produce her debut collection of poetry entitled Situationer in 1957. She married one of her fellow classmates, the chemist Bo Holmberg, and brought her children to Stockholm. The family moved to a newly built terraced house in Hässelby and the couple had a son together. After a few years they moved again, this time to a refurbished apartment in central Stockholm, which shared a yard with Strindberg’s Blå Tornet. A kind of literary salon developed there for the young writers of the 1960s.
Sonja Åkesson’s second collection of poems, Glasveranda, 1959, mostly comprises material from Gotland. Her characterisations became famous, and this was a genre she continued to develop. Sonja Åkesson, P. C. Jersild, Kai Henmark and her husband, Bo Holmberg, published a literary manifesto in Dagens Nyheter in 1960 entitled “The front against the tyranny of form”, in which they protested against the old-fashioned metaphorical language of the 1950s and sought closer proximity to the reader. Sonja Åkesson’s breakthrough occurred in 1963 with Husfrid, a prime example of the emergent simplified literary approach. The poem “Äktenskapsfrågan – Vara Vit Mans slav” – was written from a perspective of personal distaste, but it fit perfectly with the emergent women’s movement which Sonja Åkesson adopted as her own. At this point she had a well-established literary profile and she was a star of the leading journal Ord & Bild.
In the mid-1960s Sonja Åkesson met the poet Jarl Hammarberg, and this led to her second divorce and eventually her third marriage. The couple lived at Drottninggatan and they had a daughter together. Hammarberg was one of the leading concrete poets in the broiling cultural climate of the 1960s, and he experimented with the sound of language and the shape of letters. His artistic perspective influenced Sonja Åkesson extensively and she began to work with collage and sound-poetry. Hammarberg was also a prominent activist for pacifism, and this resulted in Sonja Åkesson becoming the chair of Värnpliktsvägrarnas Centralorganisation (the confederation of conscientious objectors). They later composed three books of poetry together, in which they took turns in writing lines.
The 1960s was when Sonja Åkesson bloomed. She was involved in everything and tested all genres. She was particularly drawn to the theatre, and she composed texts for Susanne Osten’s Fickteatern. She had learnt direct dialogue by studying the cabarets of the 1950s. Verklighetsflykt – i väntan på vadå? – a collaborative effort with Peter Ortman and Jean Billgren – was performed at Dramaten (the Royal Dramatic Theatre). Many poems were written directly for the stage and immediately put to music, such as “Åkej” and “Nubbevisa”. She also collaborated with the composer Gunnar Edander, and they co-authored the song collection Slagdängor. 20 lätta sjungbara bitar utan den allra vanligaste Svensktoppstexten. The comprehensive songbook entitled Sonjas Sånger was published posthumously and was turned into an album by Ulla Sjöblom. The cultural climate of the 1960s was reflected perfectly in poetry collections such as Jag bor i Sverige and Ljuva sextiotal.
The collage Pris, 1968, comprises cuttings from the daily newspapers, weekly journals and a catalogue with pieces from genres such as advertising, short stories, celebrity news and advice columns. The collage mixed sensational headlines with interior design. Hyperbole and obsequiousness were thrown together with pure rawness and vitriolic satire, placing the oppressiveness of consumption hand in hand with the oppression of women as in the poem “Värja dag lika fräsch”: “…So young and fresh!/ Wonderfully clean and fresh!/ With the rich, creamy lather you caress the softness into your skin – the adorable softness which He…”). The final text, “Skummat”, reveals a world of violence and death: “Struck by a sandbag / Our only hope/ Treated like animals // low-level war / 8000 lost…”. The cuttings are all from the tabloid press. The book was turned into a play at the Narre theatre in a famous bare-chested performance.
Around the year 1970 Jarl Hammarberg bought the villa Vita Hästen in Bromma, where, in the spirit of the time, he established a collective with the goal of establishing an activist programme including vegetarian food, Esperanto and strictly allotted housework. Sonja Åkesson was not comfortable in this environment, which may have contributed to her falling ill with depression and subsequently into abuse of alcohol and sleeping tablets. Werner Silfverskiöld was a fashionable doctor in Halmstad at that time who was happy to treat the neuroses of the cultural elite. Sonja Åkesson bought an apartment in Halmstad in order to get treatment at the hospital where Silfverskiöld was investigating sleeping cures. He sent his patients home immediately after a sleep cure without therapeutic follow-up and probably caused more harm than good – at least as far as Sonja Åkesson is concerned: her health only declined. Sonja Åkesson’s period in Halmstad is vividly described in a book of published correspondence called Vi ses, 1975, which was co-produced with Bengt Martin.
After falling ill Sonja Åkesson’s output reduced but also deepened. The tale Sagan om Siv, 1974, is a haiku poem which describes a lonely, abandoned woman. It was filmed by Harald Westman in 1974. Hästens öga, released posthumously shortly after Sonja Åkesson’s death, was written during her last difficult years and has a beauty and an existential depth which had not been in evidence earlier. She returned to the genre of characterisations and depicted a procession of Halmstad residents, both rich and poor, healthy and sick, all equally unhappy. She also returned to descriptions of nature and to the experimental forms of concrete poetry.
Sonja Åkesson’s lyrical language is marked by realism. She stayed true to what she had already written in her 1960 manifesto – she wanted to get closer to both her theme and her readers. Sometimes the realism is direct, and there is probably no other Swedish poet who speaks as directly to their readers as Sonja Åkesson did. In some of her other poems the realism is grotesque and horrible. We are reminded that Sonja Åkesson set out on her literary path as an admirer of surrealism whilst also suffering the loss of a child. Everything she wrote reflects empathy for all who are suffering.
Sonja Åkesson died in 1977 from cancer of the liver, probably brought on by her substance abuse. She is buried at Skogskyrkogården in Stockholm. In that same city there is a memorial plaque to her memory placed in the doorway of Drottninggatan 83A.