Galway Kinnell was born in Providence, Rhode Island, on February 1, 1927. 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 (Houghton Mifflin), was published in 1960, followed by Flower Herding on Mount Monadnock (Houghton Mifflin, 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 (Houghton Mifflin 1968), and especially The Book of Nightmares (Houghton Mifflin, 1971), a book-length poem concerned with the Vietnam War.
Kinnell published several more volumes of poetry, including Strong Is Your Hold (Houghton Mifflin, 2006); A New Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), a finalist for the National Book Award; Imperfect Thirst (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); When One Has Lived a Long Time Alone (Knopf, 1990); Selected Poems (Houghton Mifflin, 1982), for which he received both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award; and Mortal Acts, Mortal Words (Houghton Mifflin, 1980).
He also published translations of works by Yves Bonnefroy, Yvanne Goll, François Villon, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Prose works by Kinnell include the collection of interviews Walking Down the Stairs (University of Michigan Press, 1978), the novel Black Light (Houghton Mifflin, 1966), and the children's book How the Alligator Missed Breakfast (Houghton Mifflin, 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 was the recipient of the 2010 Wallace Stevens Award for proven mastery in the art of poetry by the Academy of American Poets. His other honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, a Rockefeller Grant, the 2002 Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, the 1974 Shelley Prize from the Poetry Society of America, and the 1975 Medal of Merit from the National Institute of Arts and Letters. He served as a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2001 to 2007.
He served as poet-in-residence at numerous colleges and universities, including the University of California at Irvine, Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence College, and Brandeis University. He taught at New York University for many years, where he was Erich Maria Remarque Professor of Creative Writing. He died at eighty-seven years old at his home in Sheffield, Vermont, on October 28, 2014.