He was a child of a military family, moving year-by-year until finally settling in his high-school years on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A graduate of Harvard University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Boston University, Phillips taught high-school Latin for eight years.
His first collection of poems, In the Blood, won the 1992 Samuel French Morse Poetry Prize, and his second book, Cortège, was nominated for a 1995 National Book Critics Circle Award. His Pastoral won the 2001 Lambda Literary Award for Best Poetry. Phillips' work has been published in the Yale Review, Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker and the Paris Review. He was named a Witter Bynner Fellowshipin 1998 and in 2006, he was named the recipient of the Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, given in memory of James Merrill.
In 2002, Phillips received the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, for The Tether. He won the Thom Gunn Award in 2005 for The Rest of Love.
His poems, which include themes of spirituality, sexuality, mortality, and faith, are featured in American Alphabets: 25 Contemporary Poets (2006) and many other anthologies.
In 2015, Phillips released his 13th collection of poems, Reconnaissance, which was nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Best Poetry and appeared on the Top Books list from Canada's Globe and Mail. Phillips was also a featured poet in the "Picture and a Poem" series for T: The New York Times Style Magazine in December 2015. Reconnaissance won the Lambda Literary Award and the PEN Center USA Award.
Phillips was a judge for the 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize. In April 2010, he was named as the new judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, replacing Louise Gluck. In 2011, he was appointed to the judging panel for The Kingsley and Kate Tufts Poetry Awards. His collection of poetry, Double Shadow, was a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award for poetry. Double Shadow won the 2011 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Poetry category).
Phillips was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2008 to 2012. and he was nominated for the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize for Silverchest.
The Board of Trustees of The Kenyon Review honored Carl Phillips as the 2013 recipient of the Kenyon Review Award for Literary Achievement.