Kinnell was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on February 1, 1927. In his youth, he was drawn to both the musicality
and hermetic wisdom of poets like Edgar Allan Poe and Emily Dickinson. In 1948, he graduated from Princeton University, where he was classmates with W. S. Merwin. However, while Merwin studied with the critic R. P. Blackmur and John Berryman, Kinnell felt what he called in one interview "a certain scorn that there could be a course in writing poetry."
He later received his Master's degree from the University of Rochester.
After serving in the United States Navy, he spent several years of his life traveling,
including extensive tours of Europe and the Middle East, especially Iran and France. His first book of poems, What a Kingdom
It Was, was published in 1960, followed by Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (1964).
Upon his return to the United States,
Kinnell joined CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) as a field worker and spent much of the 1960s involved in the Civil Rights
Movement. His many experiences with social activism during this time, including an arrest while participating in a workplace
integration in Louisiana, found their way
into his collection Body Rags (1968), and especially The Book of Nightmares (1971), a book-length poem concerned
with the Vietnam War.
Kinnell has published several more volumes of poetry, including Strong Is Your Hold: (Houghton
Mifflin, 2006); A New Selected Poems (2000), a finalist for the National Book Award; Imperfect Thirst (1996);
When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (1990); Selected Poems (1980), for which he received both the Pulitzer
Prize and the National Book Award; and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (1980).
He has also published translations of
works by Yves Bonnefroy, Yvanne Goll, François Villon, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Prose works by Kinnell include a collection of interviews, Walking Down the Stairs (1978), a novel, Black Light
(1966), and children's book, How the Alligator Missed Breakfast (1982).
About his work, Liz Rosenberg wrote in
the Boston Globe: "Kinnell is a poet of the rarest ability, the kind who comes once or twice in a generation, who can
flesh out music, raise the spirits and break the heart."
Kinnell's honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Rockefeller Grant, the 1974
Shelley Prize of the Poetry Society of America, and the 1975 Medal of Merit from National Institute of Arts and Letters. He
has served as poet-in-residence at numerous colleges and universities, including the University of California
at Irvine, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and Brandeis, and divides his time between Vermont and New York City, where he was the Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing at New York University. He is currently a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets.