To say that Steven Heighton has done well for himself over his nearly 40-year career is a bit of an understatement. In both poetry and fiction, Heighton’s rise to royalty in the CanLit world has been long and storied. But he hasn’t just been making a name for himself: he’s been making a name around the world for all of us.
Even though he was young enough to hang with and mentor Gen X poets, his work feels more like it belongs with his own mentors in the Atwood/Cohen/Ondaatje/Purdy set, both in terms of accomplishment and impact. A poet’s poet with rakish good looks, zippered leather jackets, and jeans slung carefree on a wiry frame, there’s always been a bit of a “bad boy” quality about him, but that impression seems at odds with his soft-spoken, funny, generous, and philosophical in-person presence.
If medals and trophies were gold teeth, Heighton would have a “grill.” After his first book, Stalin’s Carnival (1989), won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, he garnered five National Magazine Award medals, a finalist spot for the Journey Prize, appearances in volumes of both Best Canadian and Best American Poetry, and a Governor General’s Literary Award for 2016’s The Waking Comes Late. He’s been anthologized widely and has published in the world’s most prestigious magazines. His writing has been translated into 10 languages, gobbling up accolades and the admiration of other poets like they were pips on a screen and he was Pac-Man.
But how does Heighton’s actual work stack up when we look at it alone on the page? Very well, if perhaps daunting for novice readers. Intoxicated by the classics, with a veritable crush on both ancient and modern Greece, Heighton is worldlier than the average Canadian poet. Whether writing to other poetic minds such as Heraclitus, Cavafy, Sappho, or Lucinda Williams, or translating “approximations” of foreign poems, Heighton positions himself not by his nationality but by centring his work in the wider world as a lyrical experimentalist and metaphysical philosopher with a formalist’s ear.
Selected Poems, 1983–2020 contains a sampling of poems from each of his books, but the collection is cohesive enough to feel like the text could have been written in one go. That’s not to say we can’t track Heighton’s growth over the years – as he moves back and forth between addressing others, writing of dreams, music, heroes large and small, his times abroad as both traveller and humanitarian – but rather that his editor, Karen Solie (another brilliant poet well on her way to CanLit royalty herself), has made a judicious and representative selection from his six previous volumes to create a single work that supersedes them all. Also included are copious notes and a preface from the poet himself.
There’s no point in quoting extensively from this book in so small a space, especially given Heighton’s already formidable reputation and ubiquity on academic reading lists, as well as the fact that most of his poems, intricate and entangled as they are, defy easy pull-quotes. But as with all poets of his calibre, it’s sometimes best to just shut up and listen for a bit, in this case to find the Canadian existentialist within the world traveller: “Rink lights fade but your blades glide on, / plying tunes from the grooves / like needles do on white-hot vinyl.”