Until he was 11 he went to school in Fort Lee, New Jersey where he grew up. He then commuted to the Horace Mann School in the Bronx. He started college at the University of Wisconsin—Madison but dropped out. After taking a year out of school, he ended up at the University of Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia where he took classes with the British modernist poet Basil Bunting (1900-1985).
Basil Bunting had a major influence on Kleinzahler's search for his own voice in poetry. Another person who later influenced him was the Anglo-American poet Thom Gunn (1929-2004). Gunn's influence had to do with "the honest treatment of the poetic material at hand, not slipping into rhetorial or poetic postures, inflating subject matter or dodging difficulty," Kleinzahler explained in an interview in The Paris Review in the fall of 2007. Moreover, another major influence on Kleinzahler was William Carlos Williams. In 2007, Kleinzahler read his poems at the William Carlos Williams Society Conference at Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University in Frankfurt on Main, Germany.
Possibly the most-used blurb quote regarding Kleinzahler's work is from Allen Ginsberg:
August Kleinzahler's verse line is always precise, concrete, intelligent and rare - that quality of 'chiseled' verse memorable in Basil Bunting's and Ezra Pound's work. A loner, a genius.
Kleinzahler is the author of ten books of poetry, including The Strange Hours Travelers Keep and Sleeping It Off in Rapid City. He has also published a non-fiction work, Cutty, One Rock (Low Characters and Strange Places, Gently Explained). (The title refers to Cutty Sark Scotch with a single ice cube, the favorite drink of his beloved older brother who in 1971 committed suicide at age 27.)
For many years, he has lived in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood in San Francisco but has retained strong ties to his old home base in New Jersey. In 2005 he was named the first poet laureate of Fort Lee.