John Hartley Williams was born in Cheshire and grew up in London. He studied at Nottingham University and later at the University of London. He has worked as a teacher in France, Jugoslavia and Cameroon. Since 1976 he has been a teacher at the Free University of Berlin.
His first full collection of poems was Hidden Identities (1982), published by Chatto & Windus. Subsequent collections were published by Bloodaxe Books. They included: Bright River Yonder (1987), Cornerless People (1990), Double (1994), and Canada (1997). Ignoble Sentiments, a prose memoir, was published by Arc in 1995. In 2001 the collection Spending Time with Walter was published by Jonathan Cape, and in 2002, also from Cape, a book of prose poems Mystery in Spiderville (reissued 2003 by Vintage). Williams' work has appeared in numerous anthologies, and he has contributed reviews and articles to many poetry magazines.