Peter Sacks has published five books of poetry: In These Mountains (Macmillan 1986), Promised Lands (Penguin Books 1990), Natal Command (University of Chicago 1997), O Wheel (University of Georgia 2000), and Necessity (W.W. Norton 2002). Individual poems by Sacks have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Boulevard, The Paris Review, and other publications. He is also the author of The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spencer to Yeats (Johns Hopkins University 1985) and an art historical study, Woody Gwynn: An Approach to the Landscape (Texas Tech University 1993).
He received Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss Award for The English Elegy in 1985 and was the 1999 winner of the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry Series contest (although this award is controversial). Summer 1999 he was a Lannan Foundation writer in residence in Marfa, Texas.
Sacks was born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and grew up in Durban. His father was a physician, and for a time Peter expected to follow in his footsteps. He attended Princeton University (B.A. 1973), Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar (M.Phil. 1976), and Yale University (Ph.D. 1980). Sacks taught English at Johns Hopkins University between 1980 and 1996, being promoted to full professor in 1989. Since 1996, he has been a professor of English and American literature and language at Harvard University.
His first wife was Barbara Kassel, a painter and teacher of painting.
Sacks married poet Jorie Graham in 2000. Among other awards, her poetry has been recognized by a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, and a Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Graham's relationship with Sacks was briefly the subject of controversy in the poetry community, when the website Foetry.com alleged that she judged the University of Georgia Contemporary Poetry series contest that selected Sacks's manuscript "O Wheel" as the first place winner. Although contest administrator Bin Ramke refused to name the judge who had selected Sacks's manuscript, the allegation was shown to be partially true when documents were released following a Georgia Open Records Act request. Although (according to the Los Angeles Times) Graham had not yet arrived at Harvard or married Sacks when the prize was awarded, she did not deny that she and Sacks knew each other at the time of the contest, and said that she felt "awkward" enough about it to ask the series editor Ramke to make the call.
In 1999, during a period of indecision, Sacks began painting over photographs using thick white acrylic. This led to an interest in what he might be able to accomplish as a painter. He now exhibits his work in France and around the world.
Sacks is not a narrative poet in a conventional sense, and he is not a nature poet, yet readers of his poems soon begin to inhabit the landscapes Sacks identifies as home – and to share his knowledge of how deeply dangerous (physically, emotionally, morally) being alive can become.
The Library Journal, reviewing In These Mountains, said, “This first volume of poetry by a South African living in America is a quiet, understated, and complex work, ranging in subject from travel to homelessness; in feeling, from celebrations of beauty to painful recollection. Weaving together myth, memory, and history to narrate the fate of South African Bushmen, the long title poem expresses Sacks's complex feelings -- sorrow, outrage, loss toward his homeland. Sacks is a visual poet – an image maker rather than an abstract or discursive one – and his images, like his feelings about South Africa, are double-edged.”
Reviewing Promised Land, J.M. Coetzee described Peter Sacks as “a poet whose sense of history lies deep in his bones." Others have praised his ability to communicate passion, pain, and the desire for redress, side by side with submission to the fact of mortality.
Natal Command chronicles the poet’s despair as he watches his father die and his fatherland change. The figure of the poet as swimmer and runner, of sensual man as natural athlete, is central to the book.
O Wheel is a millennial collection of poems – some of them masquerading as diary notes – celebrating the beauty of the American West and the poet’s love of his African home. The work also looks back at a century of unprecedented violence and the wrenching death of his father. In “Two Mountains,” the poet, recognizing himself as Isaac at the place of sacrifice, becomes the invoked Muse. Powell's Books described O Wheel as "a book of amazing delicacy, intricacy, and formal beauty that reveals terrifying truths. Its backdrop is an edgy mix of the intense violence of South Africa's recent history, the personal struggles of the human soul for the rights to speak freely and to experience justice, and the expanse of the American literary landscape. Peter Sacks employs a variety of poetic styles and approaches that break new ground formally as well as thematically. With a vision that is at once personal and public, he contends with nihilism and extracts hope from even the most barbaric aspects of human nature. O Wheel offers sensitive and striking poems that menace, overwhelm, entice, provoke, and deeply move the reader."
Sacks writes of Necessity, “The poems make and record an unavoidable but potentially self-clarifying quest in the face of injustice, atrocity, beauty.”