Born Wilhelm Albert Vladimir Apollinaris de Kostrowitzky in Rome, Italy, he was one of the many great artists who worked in the Montmartre district of Paris during an era of great creativity. One of the most popular members of the artistic village at Montparnasse, his friends and collaborators during that period were Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, Erik Satie, and Ossip Zadkine.
Apollinaire's first collection of poetry was L'enchanteur pourrissant (1909), but it was Alcools (1913) which established his reputation. These poems, influenced in part by the symbolistss, juxtapose the old and the new, using traditional forms and modern imagery.
Also in 1913, Apollinaire published the essay "Les Peintres cubistes" on the cubist painters, a movement which he helped to define. He also coined the term orphism to describe a tendency towards absolute abstraction in the paintings of Robert Delaunay and others.
He fought in World War I and in 1916 was seriously wounded in the temple (see photo). While recovering from his wound, he wrote the play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (1917) (the subject of an opera by Francis Poulenc premiered in 1947), which he described as surrealist, making it one of the first works to be so-described. He had earlier coined the word surrealism in the program notes for Jean Cocteau and Erik Satie's ballet Parade, first performed on 18 May 1917. He also published an artistic manifesto, L'Esprit nouveau et les poètes.
The weakened Apollinaire died of influenza during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. He was interred in the Le Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. Shortly after his death, Calligrammes, a collection of his concrete poetry (poetry in which typography and layout adds to the overall effect) was published.