Born and raised in Worcester, Massachusetts, Kunitz was educated at Harvard. Declaring himself a pacifist, he served in the army during World War II cleaning latrines. He taught poetry workshops at several colleges, coedited a number of biographical dictionaries, helped to establish the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, edited the Yale Series of Younger Poets (from 1974-1976), and refined an increasingly open, almost conversational poetic voice. A 1967 trip to the Soviet Union led to his translating several poets from the Russian.
Lindsay was born in his family home in Springfield, Illinois, delivered by his physician father. Lindsay spent nearly three years at Hiram College trying to fulfill his father's ambition that he become a doctor, but then convinced his parents art was his real mission. He enrolled at the Chicago Art Institute in 1901. Two years later, he transferred to the New York School of Art, but he was already spending a good deal of time writing poems.
Born in Ilford, Essex, in England, Levertov was educated at home until she went briefly to ballet school and then trained to work as a nurse in London during World War II. Her father was a Jew who converted to Christianity and became an Anglican priest; her mother was Welsh. Levertov came to the United States in 1948. She later served briefly as poetry editor for The Nation and taught at several schools, including Stanford.
Merwin was born in New York and raised first in Union City, New Jersey, and then in Scranton, Pennsylvania. He studied Romance Languages at Princeton University, where he worked with poet John Berryman and poet-critic R.P. Blackmur. It was at Princeton as well, in the midst of World War II when some of his classmates were dying in Europe and the Pacific, that he began writing, but not publishing, poems of despair amid the violence of history. He would return to these themes again decades later, when the Vietnam War would come to seem a comprehensive figure for public life in America.
Born in Rockland, Maine, Millay was educated at Vassar. In 1917, she moved to New York's Greenwich Village and joined the revolutionary mix of politics, modernism, and sexual experimentation that typified the community. Her poem "First Fig" is usually taken as the signature poem of an ecstatically romantic mode of writing, but it is offered here as an emblem of the more risky mix of commitments that shaped her life.
Born and raised in New York City, James Merrill was the child of a founder of America's most famous brokerage firm. He was educated at Amherst College, a stay interrupted by a year's service in the U.S. infantry at the end of World War II. Thereafter he divided his time between Connecticut, Florida, and Greece and devoted himself to a highly successful literary career. His poetry is poised, self-conscious, elegant, and witty; its manner owes perhaps as much to the stylistic polish of Proust's and James's fiction as to other poets.
Born on a farm near Sheldon, North Dakota, the grandchild of Irish Catholic homesteaders, McGrath was educated at the University of North Dakota, Louisiana State University, New College, and Oxford University, the latter as a Rhodes Scholar. He was in the U.S. Air Force in the Aleutian Islands during World War II, isolated from combat in a unit full of radicals feared by the high command.
Among progressive modern American poets working with social and political themes and using traditional forms, Aaron Kramer may well be the single most accomplished figure. From his first protest poems, written in the mid-1930s when he was barely a teenager, through to his pointed critiques of the 1983 war in Grenada and Ronald Reagan's 1985 visit to Nazi graves in Bitburg, what stands out about Kramer's work is the musical character of his acts of political witness.
Susan Howe was born to Irish-American parents in Boston. She was educated as a painter at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and exhibited her work in several group shows in New York. In the course of working on collages and then on performance pieces, she became interested in poetry and gradually made writing her career. She began to teach at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1991.
With its concise and telling graveyard epitaphs, Masters's 1915 collection, Spoon River Anthology, established his reputation and remains his best-known work. Born and raised in a small town in Illinois, his first and last volumes of poetry focus on the life of his native Midwest. Yet he also took up other subjects and used a variety of verse forms in the course of his career, meanwhile working as a lawyer and writing biographies of Vachel Lindsay, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain. See especially Spoon River Anthology: An Annotated Edition (1992).