His early collections, in particular, portray his own childhood, as well as those of his parents and grandparents. North Sea (1978), The Rote Walker (1981), and the book-length collection Iris (1992) all include poems inspired by Jarman’s family—including his grandmother, Nora, a formative influence—and recount his experiences as the son of a minister. Frequently set in California or Scotland, both places Jarman spent time as a youth, Jarman’s poetry focuses on formal, narrative storytelling, and he frequently cites Edwin Arlington Robinson, Robert Frost, and Robinson Jeffers as his influences. Dedicated to his friend and collaborator, Robert McDowell, Jarman’s fourth collection The Black Riveria (1990) was awarded the Poets’ Prize in 1991. In the Georgia Review, critic Fred Chappell noted that "Mark Jarman is good, one of the most thoughtful and adroit poets writing these days, a man with handsome ambitions."
Jarman was born in 1952 in Mount Sterling, Kentucky. The son of a minister, Jarman’s work has increasingly turned from autobiography to religious faith and doubt. Although steeped in religion as a child, Jarman had become ambivalent about faith. But when his wife suggested that their family begin attending church, Jarman experienced a renewal of his belief in God. His later writings reflect his newfound spirituality. Questions for Ecclesiastes (1997), which was awarded the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, responds to its Biblical source text, as Jarman rediscovers his sense of the spiritual. Jarman wrote in an essay for Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series that his wife's decision to attend church was not a religious one, but a family issue. "But for me it was a religious decision. It required admitting to myself that I still had a faith… As an epigraph to The Rote Walker I quoted two lines from John Logan's poem 'The Spring of the Thief': 'When we speak of God, / Is it God we speak of?' I used to say flippantly that the answer to that profound question was 'Yes and no.' I no longer think the answer is flippant. It is just as profound as the question."
In later books like Unholy Sonnets (2000) and Epistles (2007), Jarman uses forms such as the sonnet and prose poem to interrogate and affirm his belief in God, the concepts of salvation and miracles, and the pitfalls of faith. Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems (2011) includes poems from his previous nine books of poetry. Describing the difficulty in returning to poems written 30 years ago, Jarman said, “It’s a little like looking at photographs of yourself when you were thirty years younger, and thinking a couple of things—both God he was better looking then, and God what a callow youth. Why did he wear that? It’s more or less like that. But there are some good aspects to it, too. You go back and look at a poem from thirty years ago and you realize you still like it, and you also have the question, How did I manage to write that? I couldn’t do it now.”
Jarman has also written two collections of essays, The Secret of Poetry (2001) and Body and Soul (2002), which further distill his thoughts on narrative, craft, and from. Married to the soprano Amy Jarman, he lives in Nashville, Tennessee where he is Centennial Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Jarman’s many awards include the Robert Frost Fellowship from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.