Finlay was born in Ozark, Dale co., Alabama, at the home of his maternal grandmother. 1 of 5 children of Jean (Sorrell) and Tom Coston Finlay, he grew up on his family's peanut farm near Enterprise, Coffee co., Alabama. As a child he named the family cows after Greek gods and recited Shakespeare to them.
He was educated at the University of Alabama, earning a B.A. in 1964 and an M.A. in English in 1966. He then taught for 4 years at the University of Montevallo. In 1970 he entered Louisiana State University in pursuit of a Ph.D., which he earned in 1980. In the latter year, he also became a Roman Catholic.
Finlay was diagnosed with AIDS in 1981. He retired to live on the family farm in Enterprise and write full-time until his death 10 years later.
- The Wide Porch, and other poems (with introduction by Thom Gunn). Florence, KY: R.L. Barth, 1984.
- Between the Gulfs. Florence, KY: R.L. Barth, 1986.
- The Salt of Exposure: Poems. Omaha, NE: Cummington Press, 1988.
- Notes for the Perfect Poem (edited by David Middleton). 1991.
- Mind and Blood: The collected poems (edited by David Middleton). Santa Barbara, CA: J. Daniel, 1992.
- The American Tragedies: A chronology of six poems (edited by David Middleton). Edgewood, KY: R.L. Barth, 1997.
- Flaubert in Egypt: Essays on the Gnostic spirit in modern literature and thought. 1993.
- Hermetic Light: Essays on the Gnostic spirit in modern literature and thought. Santa Barbara, CA: J. Daniel, 1994.
- A Prayer to the Father: Poetry and prose. Thibodaux, LA: Blue Heron Press, 1992.
- Audio / video
- John Finlay at the Encyclopedia of Alabama
- John Finlay at the Alabama Center for the Book
- "The Lyrics and Life of Alabama Poet John Finlay" at Alina's Adventures
- "On Literary Gifts and Giving: my poet friend John Finly (1941-1991)"
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