In 1947, Gregory Orr was born in Albany, New York, and grew up in the rural Hudson Valley, and for a year, in a hospital in the hinterlands of Haiti. He received a BA degree from Antioch College, and an MFA from Columbia University.
He is the author of numerous collections of poetry, including River Inside the River: Poems (W. W. Norton, 2013); How Beautiful the Beloved (Copper Canyon Press, 2009); Concerning the Book that is the Body of the Beloved (2005); The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems (2002); Orpheus and Eurydice (2001); City of Salt (1995), which was a finalist for the L.A. Times Poetry Prize; Gathering the Bones Together (1975) and Burning the Empty Nests (1973).
He is also the author of a memoir, The Blessing (Council Oak Books, 2002), which was chosen by Publisher's Weekly as one of the fifty best non-fiction books the year, and three books of essays, including Poetry As Survival (2002) and Stanley Kunitz: An Introduction to the Poetry (1985).
He is considered by many to be a master of short, lyric free verse. Much of his early work is concerned with seminal events from his childhood, including a hunting accident when he was twelve in which he accidentally shot and killed his younger brother, followed shortly by his mother's unexpected death, and his father's later addiction to amphetamines. Some of the poems that deal explicitly with these incidents include "A Litany," "A Moment," and "Gathering the Bones Together," in which he declares: "I was twelve when I killed him; / I felt my own bones wrench from my body." In the opening of his essay, "The Making of Poems," broadcast on National Public Radio's All Things Considered, Orr said, "I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive."
In a review of Concerning the Book That Is the Body of the Beloved from the Virginia Quarterly Review, Ted Genoways writes: "Sure, the trappings of modern life appear at the edges of these poems, but their focus is so unwaveringly aimed toward the transcendent—not God, but the beloved—that we seem to slip into a less cluttered time. It's an experience usually reserved for reading the ancients, and clearly that was partly Orr's inspiration."
Orr has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and two poetry fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2003, he was presented the Award in Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was a Rockefeller Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Violence, where he worked on a study of the political and social dimension of the lyric in early Greek poetry.
He teaches at the University of Virginia, where he founded the MFA Program in Writing in 1975, and served from 1978 to 2003 as Poetry Editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. He lives with his wife, the painter Trisha Orr, and their two daughters in Charlottesville, Virginia.