Jon Silkin was the son of Jewish parents, Joseph Silkin, a lawyer, and Dora Rubenstein Silkin. War made a deep impression on Silkin as a child; as a youngster, one of Silkin’s most vivid memories, referred to in his poetry, was of being evacuated from London to the countryside during the German bombing during World War II. After National Service in the Education Corps (1948-1950), during which he reached the rank of sergeant, Silkin spent the years between 1950 and 1956 as a manual laborer in London, an experience partly reflected in his first-person poems about cemetery groundskeeping and about workingmen. During this period, he founded the literary periodical Stand in 1952 and published his first major poetry collection in 1954.
After working as an English teacher to foreign students in 1956-1958, Silkin was appointed Gregory Fellow in Poetry at the University of Leeds, a position he held from 1958 to 1960. He came relatively late to a formal college education, earning his B.A. from the University of Leeds as a mature student. The degree, awarded in 1962, took him only two years to complete. In 1964, he became founding coeditor of Northern House Publishers in Newcastle upon Tyne and subsequently, as reflected in the locales of his poetry, held a variety of teaching, visiting instructor, and visiting writer-in-residence posts at universities and colleges in England, the United States (in Ohio, Iowa, Idaho, Kentucky, and Washington, D.C.), Australia, Israel, Japan, and Korea.
Married to the writer Lorna Tracy in 1974 and divorced in 1995, Silkin had four children; the death of the first, Adam, and birth of the second, David, had profound impacts on Silkin, manifested in his poetry, which likewise indicates how important love, marriage, children, and parenting remained throughout his life. He died in 1997.