David Russell Wagoner was born on June 5, 1926, in Massillon, Ohio, and was reared in Whiting, Indiana, the son of a steelworker. After receiving his B.A. degree from Pennsylvania State University in 1947 and his M.A. from Indiana University two years later, Wagoner began his teaching career at DePauw University, returning after a year to Pennsylvania State University. During this time, he was deeply influenced by Theodore Roethke, with whom he had studied as an undergraduate. In 1954, Roethke was instrumental in Wagoner’s move to the University of Washington, where he taught until his retirement in 2002. X. J. Kennedy has speculated that perhaps “the most valuable service Roethke ever performed for Wagoner was to bring him to the Pacific Northwest and expose him to rain forests”—and to the culture of the Northwest Coast and Plateau Indians, one might add. Not only has Wagoner made use in his own poems of specific Native American myths and legends, but he has also absorbed the Indians’ animistic spiritualism into his own philosophy. In the author’s note to Who Shall Be the Sun?, he explains that Indians “did not place themselves above their organic and inorganic companions on earth but recognized with awe that they shared the planet as equals.” Wagoner finds this equality “admirable and worthy of imitation,” as much of his poetry indicates.
When not teaching, Wagoner has worked as a railroad section hand, a park police officer, and a short-order cook. He is a member of the Society of American Magicians. He served as editor of Poetry Northwest from 1966 until it ceased publication in 2002, and he has contributed poetry and commentary to a range of literary journals, including Antioch Review, The Atlantic, Harvard Review, New England Review, Poetry, and Prairie Schooner.