Larry Patrick Levis was born in Fresno, California, on September 30, 1946. His father was a grape grower, and in his youth Levis drove a tractor, pruned vines, and picked grapes in Selma, California. He earned a bachelor's degree from Fresno State College (now California State University, Fresno) in 1968, a master's degree from Syracuse University in 1970, and a Ph.D. from the University of Iowa in 1974.
His first book of poems, Wrecking Crew (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972), won the United States Award from the International Poetry Forum. His second book, The Afterlife (University of Iowa Press, 1976), was the Lamont Poetry Selection of The American Academy of Poets. In 1981, The Dollmaker's Ghost (Dutton) was a winner of the Open Competition of the National Poetry Series.
About Levis's work, poet Robert Mezey said, "Larry Levis writes a poetry that is full of surprises. Not the predictable and boring surprises that can be created by formula, but the nourishing shock of fresh ideas that rise from the work of the true poet."
Among his honors were a YM-YWHA Discovery Award, three fellowships in poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
"Levis is not interested in metaphorical equivalence," wrote poet Tony Hoagland, "in comparison as a device whose goal is logical coherence, or persuasion, or concentration; rather, his practice is to use image as a form of inquiry, as a kind of tentative, speculating finger poking into the unknown."
He taught English at the University of Missouri from 1974 to 1980, was an associate professor and directed the creative writing program at the University of Utah from 1980 to 1992, and from 1992 until his death was a professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Levis died of a heart attack on May 8, 1996, at the age of 49. A posthumous collection, Elegy (University of Pittsburgh Press), edited by Philip Levine, was published in 1997, and The Darkening Trapeze: Last Poems (Graywolf Press), edited by David St. John, was published in 2016.