Robert Kelly was born in Brooklyn, New York, on September 24, 1935, where he spent his first eight years on the south shore of Long Island. He discovered a love for poetry after reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Kubla Khan, and developed an affinity for the "haunted reality of words." Early influences also included Charles Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, and Guillaume Apollinaire.
After receiving an undergraduate degree in 1955 from the City College of the City University of New York, Kelly studied for three years at Columbia University. Co-founder of the Chelsea Review (now Chelsea) and Trobar magazine, he began devoloping a poetics he referred to as Deep Image, referencing the "deep structure" of linguistics.
After publishing his first collection of poems, Armed Descent, in 1961, Kelly's notion of the vernacular's "vulgar eloquence" was expanded and fortified by the influence of poets Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. As Kelly stated in an interview with The Modern Review, "When I began to know their work, and explore their solutions, real and imaginary, to the isolation of the ego in a world of music, I began to speak less of Deep Image" (the same term was later redeveloped by the poet Robert Bly, and used by Galway Kinnell and James Wright, among others).
He has gone on to publish more than fifty poetry titles, including Kill the Messenger Who Brings Bad News (1980), which received the Los Angeles Times First Annual Book Award. Other titles include Red Actions: Selected Poems 1960-1993 (1995), Lapis (2005), and May Day (Parsifal Press, 2007).
Kelly has also written a collection of essays and manifestoes, In Time (Frontier Press, 1972), was co-editor (with Paris Leary) of the anthology A Controversy of Poets (Doubleday Anchor, 1965), and has written several volumes of short fiction. His poems and stories have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German, and Serbian. He has also served as contributing editor to a number of magazines, including Conjunctions and Poetry International.
As Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris state in volume two of the anthology Poems for the Millennium, "Kelly is heir to both Pound & Zukofsky in his vision of the poet as a 'scientist of the whole . . . to whom all data whatsoever are of use / world-scholar.'"
He has received an Award for Distinction from the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has taught at Wagner College, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and as the Tufts University Visiting Professor of Modern Poetry. He has also served as Poet in Residence at Yale University (Calhoun College), the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Kansas University, Dickinson College, California Institute of the Arts, and the University of Southern California.
He currently serves as Asher B. Edelman Professor of Literature and Co-Director of the Program in Written Arts at Bard College, where he has taught since 1961.