Born in Germany to a religiously observant family, Amichai and his family emigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1935, living briefly in Petach Tikvah before settling in Jerusalem. In World War II he fought with the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, and upon his discharge in 1946, he joined the Palmach. During the War of Independence he fought in the Negev, on the southern front. Following the war, Amichai attended Hebrew University, studying Biblical texts and Hebrew literature, and then taught in secondary schools.
Amichai's first volume of poetry, Achshav Uve-Yamim HaAharim (“Now and in Other Days”) was published in 1955 and aroused serious interest in readers and critics alike. This and subsequent volumes of poetry revealed that Amichai was engaged in a distinctly modern literary enterprise, both in content and in language. Subjects heretofore deemed prosaic became appropriate poetic images: tanks, airplanes, fuel, administrative contracts, and technological terms figure in his work, reflecting Amichai's conviction that a modern poetry must confront and reflect contemporary issues.
Concomitant with his non-traditional choice of subjects is Amichai's innovative use of the Hebrew language. Drawing from and interfacing various strata of language, from classical Hebrew to the post-modern colloquial, Amichai became known as the “poet who plays with words.” Influenced by the wit and irony of modern English poetry, Amichai, also a master of understatement, coined new idioms and slang expressions, and incorporated prose phrases in his work. As with his imagery and subject matter, his linguistic versatility reflects his sense that language, including poetic language, emerges out of the modern technological society rather than classical texts only. Hence the citation of the Israel Prize, awarded to Amichai in 1982, which heralded “the revolutionary change in poetry's language” that the poet had begun through his work.
Amichai's poetry spans a range of emotions, from laughter to sadness to self-mockery. His work emphasizes the individual who, although conscious and integrally part of the collective experience, ultimately views the world through his personal lens. This individual perspective evinces a candid, honest approach to the outside world.
Amichai's canon is also impressive for the volume of work it encompasses, and many individual books of poetry appeared in rapid succession, as well as Collected Poems (1963) and Selected Works of 1981. Shirei Yerushalayim (“Poems of Jerusalem,” 1987) is a bilingual edition accompanied by photographs of the city, a model Amichai used again in 1992 for other poems, scenes, and photos. In addition to his numerous volumes of poetry, he has written short stories, two novels, radio sketches, and children's literature. Much of his work has been translated into other languages.