Alan Shapiro was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 18, 1952, the son of Harold Shapiro and Marilyn Shapiro. Many of his poems portray his extended Jewish American family, whose presence informed his early life with their rich tangle of rivalry, jealousy, love, and devotion. He has described himself as a baby-boom child of the middle class. His undergraduate work was done at Brandeis University, where he began to write poetry seriously while studying under the stringent gaze of Cunningham and Galway Kinnell.
Shapiro has followed an academic career, teaching creative writing at Northwestern University, Evanston; the University of North Carolina, Greensboro; and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he became the William R. Kenan, Jr., Distinguished Professor of English and creative writing in 2002. In In Praise of the Impure, Shapiro records an experience from early in his teaching career when a talented student who seemed to read poetry with an unusually deep level of understanding succumbed to cancer. She seemed to use her understanding of poetry to interpret her mortality, a gift that poetry can offer all its readers. The 1995 death of Shapiro’s older sister, Beth, from cancer, and the death of his older brother, David, in 2000, have led him to similar insights, as his memoir Vigil attests.