Bernstein, who was born in 1950, grew up on the upper West Side of Manhattan and attended the Bronx High School of Science. He graduated from Harvard College, after which he worked for many years as a freelance medical/healthcare writer. From 1989 to 2003, he taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he was co-founder and Director of the Poetics Program and a SUNY Distinguished Professor. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and of the Roy Harvey Pearce/Archive for New Poetry Prize of the University of California, San Diego; for lifetime contribution to poetry and scholarship. In 2006 he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2015 he was awarded the Münster Prize for International Poetry and the Janus Pannonius Grand Prize for Poetry. In 2019, he received the Bollingen Prize for American Poetry, for lifetime achievement and Near/Miss.