McClatchy was born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, in 1945. He was educated at Georgetown and Yale, from which he received his Ph.D. in 1974. He lives in Stonington, Connecticut and New York. His partner is graphic designer Chip Kidd.
McClatchy is an adjunct professor at Yale University and editor of the Yale Review. He also edits the "Voice of the Poet" series for Random House AudioBooks.
His book Hazmat (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002) was nominated for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. He has written texts for musical settings, including eight opera libretti, for such composers as Elliot Goldenthal, Daron Hagen, Lowell Liebermann, Lorin Maazel, Tobias Picker, Ned Rorem, Bruce Saylor, and William Schuman. His honors include an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1991). He has also been one of the New York Public Literary Lions, and received the 2000 Connecticut Governor’s Arts Award.
In 1999, he was elected into the membership of The American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in January 2009 he was elected president. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (1987), the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Academy of American Poets (1991). He served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1996 until 2003.
With UCLA professor and poet Stephen Yenser, McClatchy serves as co-executor for the literary estate of James Merrill (1926–1995).
- Seven Mozart Librettos: A Verse Translation (W.W. Norton 2010)
- Mercury Dressing: Poems (Knopf, 2009)
- Division of Spoils: Selected Poems (Arc, 2003)
- Hazmat, Alfred A. Knopf: Random House, 96 pages, April 2004
- Ten Commandments, Random House, Inc., 120 pages, December 1999
- The Rest of the Way (Knopf, 1992).
- Stars Principal (Macmillan,1986).
- Scenes from Another Life (Braziller,1981).
- American Writers at Home, Photographs by Erica Lennard, Library of America, 240 pages, October 2004
- Twenty Questions, Columbia University Press, 200 pages February 1998
- White Paper (Columbia UP, 1989).
- The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry, Random House, Inc, 654 pages, May 1996
- Christmas Poems, Edited by John Hollander and J. D. McClatchy, Random House, Inc , cloth , 256 pages, October 1999
- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings (Library of America), Library of America, 854 pages, August 2000
- Bright Pages: Yale Writers, 1701–2001, Yale University Press, 540 pages, April 2001
- Love Speaks Its Name: Gay and Lesbian Love Poems, Random House, Inc, 256 pages,May 2001
- Poems of the Sea, Random House, Inc, 256 pages, November 2001
- Collected Poems by James Merrill, Edited by Stephen Yenser and J. D. McClatchy, Alfred A. Knopf: Random House, 912 pages, November 2002
- The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Second Edition,Vintage Books: Random House, 736 pages, April 2003
- Allen Ginsberg: The Voice of the Poet, Random House, Inc, March 2004
- Frank O'Hara: The Voice of the Poet, Random House, Inc., March 2004
- W.H. Auden: The Voice of the Poet, Random House, Inc., March 2004
- Horace, the Odes: New Translations by Contemporary Poets by Horace, Edited by J. D. McClatchy and Nicholas Jenkins, Princeton University Press, 320 pages, April 2005
- Poets of the Civil War, Library of America, 250 pages, April 2005
- The Changing Light at Sandover: A Poem by James Merrill, Edited by J. D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser, Alfred A. Knopf: Random House, 608 pages February 2006