Bynner was born in Brooklyn, New York, and brought up in Brookline, Massachusetts. He graduated from Harvard University in 1902. Initially he pursued a career in journalism, and edited McClure's Magazine. He then turned to writing, living in Cornish, New Hampshire until about 1915.
In 1916 he was one of the perpetrators, with Arthur Davison Ficke, a friend from Harvard, of an elaborate literary hoax. It involved a purported 'Spectrist' school of poets, along the lines of the Imagists, based in Pittsburgh. Spectra, a slim collection, was published under the pseudonyms of Anne Knish (Ficke) and Emanuel Morgan (Bynner). Marjorie Allen Seiffert, writing as Elijah Hay, was roped in to bulk out the 'movement'.
In early 1917 he traveled to Japan with Ficke.
In New York, Bynner was a member of The Players club, the Harvard Club, and the Mac Dowell Club. In San Francisco, he joined the Bohemian Club.
Bynner had a short spell in academia in 1918-1919 during World War I, at the University of California, Berkeley as Professor of Oral English. There, he composed Canticle of Praise and taught classes in poetry and verse writing. He was forced to leave after serving alcohol to freshmen during Prohibition.
He then traveled to China, and studied Chinese literature. He subsequently produced many translations from Chinese. His verse showed both Japanese and Chinese influences, but the latter were major. Bynner became more of a modernist in consequence, where previously he had been inclined to parody Imagism, and dismiss the orientalist pronouncements with which Ezra Pound was free.
Life and career in Sante Fe
Bynner settled in Santa Fe, in a steady and acknowledged 30-year homosexual relationship with Robert Hunt. He became a friend of D. H. Lawrence, and traveled with him and Frieda von Richthofen in Mexico; he much later in 1951 wrote on Lawrence, while he and his partner Willard Johnson are portrayed in Lawrence's The Plumed Serpent. Bynner and Hunt had numerous parties at their house, hosting many notable writers, actors, and artists, which guests included Ansel Adams, Willa Cather, Igor Stravinsky, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, Clara Bow, Errol Flynn, Rita Hayworth, Christopher Isherwood, Carl Van Vechten, Martha Graham, Georgia O'Keeffe and Thornton Wilder.
On January 18, 1965, Bynner had a severe stroke. He never recovered, and required constant care until he died on June 1, 1968. His papers are archived in the New Mexico State University Library.
His house is, as of 2008, the Inn of the Turquoise Bear, a bed and breakfast.
- An Ode to Harvard and Other Poems (1907)
- Tiger (1913)
- The Little King (1914)
- The New World (1915)
- The Beloved Stranger
- Iphigenia in Tauris (1916) translator
- Spectra (1916) poems with Arthur Davison Ficke
- Grenstone Poems (1917)
- Pins for Wings
- Canticle of Praise (1919)
- A Canticle of Pan (1920)
- Roots (1929) poems
- The Jade Mountain (1929) translations from Chinese with Kiang Kang-hu
- Indian Earth (1929) poems
- Guest Book (1935) poems
- Selected Poems (1943)
- The Way of Life, according to Lao Tzu (1944)
- Take Away the Darkness (1947)
- Journey with Genius (1951) memoir of D. H. Lawrence
- New Poems (1960)
- Selected Poems (1978)
- The Way of Life According to Laotzu (1944)translator (illust. by Frank Wren)