Henri Cole was born in 1956 into an American military family residing in Fukuoka, Japan. He was raised in Virginia, growing up in a home where three languages (English, French, and Armenian) were routinely spoken, only one of which he understood. He ascribes his sensitivity to tone to his dependence on vocal inflection in understanding meaning.
In the sonnet sequence “Apollo,” he portrays his father “. . . making our house/ a theater of hysteria and despair”; in a short autobiographical essay, he describes the violence of that house, where he learned to read the signs as he heard “the household escalate toward danger—the voices of my parents growing hysterical, lamps being thrown across rooms.” He reports that he was beaten from his early childhood. Many of his poems dramatize the complexity of his response to his upbringing and his parents, who are treated with gratitude, ambivalence, and satire through his collections.
Cole also notes that his household was Roman Catholic and he was both succored and mystified by his devotion and by his feelings that God remained silent to his pleas. This spiritual yearning is a continuing component of Cole’s mature poetry. “My only dialogue” during that period, he writes, “was with God, whom I besieged with my prayers.” He describes the solitary nature of his early years as a kind of existential state necessary for his development as a writer.
At the College of William and Mary, where he would receive a bachelor of arts in 1978, Cole began writing poetry during his junior year. He describes his apprentice work as unoriginal, wholly autobiographical, and filled with unarticulated homosexual yearning and uncertainty. One important early poetic master, however, was James Merrill, whose refined surfaces, wit, and self-exploration Cole admires, and who remained a major influence, particularly through Cole’s first two books.
Cole received a master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee in 1980. After receiving an M.F.A. from Columbia University in 1982, he became executive director of the Academy of American Poets, a position he held until 1988. He has since held teaching positions at Smith College and Brandeis, Columbia, Harvard (where he was Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Poetry), and Yale universities. He currently teaches at Ohio State University in Columbus.