During his early career he was part of a circle of poets centred on Ian Hamilton and forming something of a school, promoting conciseness and imagist-like clarity in verse, though his work has changed and developed a good deal since then.
He has published nine collections of poetry which have won several literary prizes and awards. Legion won the Forward Prize for best collection 2005 and was shortlisted for both the T.S. Eliot and Whitbread Awards. His work in music theatre has involved collaborations with a number of composers (but most often with Sir Harrison Birtwistle, the opera Gawain being their most notable collaboration) and has been performed at the Royal Opera House, Carnegie Hall, the Southbank Centre, The Proms, the Wiener Kammeroper, and broadcast on BBC Two, Channel 4 and Trio (USA). A new opera, The Minotaur (also with Birtwistle), opened at The Royal Opera House in 2008. Birtwistle once again turned to Harsent's words for his major song cycle Songs from the Same Earth (2012–13). Harsent is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Honorary Research Fellow at Royal Holloway University and in 2005 was appointed Distinguished Writing Fellow at Sheffield Hallam University, where he is now a visiting professor In 2012 he was appointed Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.
He left Bath Spa University in favour of The University of Roehampton in July 2013 after receiving an honorary degree.
He lives with his wife, the actress Julia Watson, and their daughter in London.
- A Violent Country (1969)
- After Dark (1973)
- Truce (1973)
- Dreams of the Dead (1977)
- Mister Punch (1984)
- From an Inland Sea (1985)
- Savramena Britanska Poezija, editor with Mario Suško, (1988)
- Gawain: a libretto (1991)
- Storybook Hero (1992)
- News from the Front (1993)
- The Sorrow of Sarajevo, translations of poems by Goran Simic, illustrated by Robert McNab, (1996)
- Sprinting from the Graveyard, translations of poems by Goran Simic, (1997)
- A Bird’s Idea of Flight (1998)
- Another Round at the Pillars: A Festschrift for Ian Hamilton, editor, (1999)
- Marriage (2002)
- Raising the Iron, editor, (2004)
- Legion (2005)
- Selected Poems, 1969–2005 (2007)
- The Minotaur: a libretto (2008)
- Night (2011)
- Fire Songs (2014)
Writing as Jack Curtis
- Crow's Parliament
- Point of Impact
- Conjure Me
- The Confessor
- Sons of the Morning
Writing as David Lawrence
- Circle of the Dead (also released as: The Dead Sit Round in a Ring)
- Nothing Like the Night
- Cold Kill
- Down into Darkness
Prizes and awards
- 1967 Eric Gregory Award
- 1970 Art Council Writer’s Award
- 1977 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize for Dreams of the Dead
- 1978 Art Council Writer’s Award
- 1988 Society of Authors Travel Award
- 1998 Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year) (shortlist) for A Bird’s Idea of Flight
- 2002 T.S. Eliot Prize (shortlist) for Marriage
- 2002 Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year) (shortlist) for Marriage
- 2005 Forward Prize — Best Poetry Collection of the Year for Legion
- 2005 T.S. Eliot Prize (shortlist) for Legion
- 2005 Whitbread Poetry Award (shortlist) for Legion
- 2007 Forward Poetry Prize (Best Single Poem) (shortlist) for The Hut in Question
- 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize (International shortlist) for Selected Poems, 1969–2005
- 2011 Costa Book Awards (Poetry), shortlist, Night
- 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize (International winner) for Night
- 2015 T.S. Eliot Prize (poetry) for Fire Songs
- Patterson, Christina (January 2006). "Writing for Birtwistle" (PDF). Retrieved 8 July 2008.
- "David Harsent". Retrieved 11 February 2013.
- "Weldon and Hensher head to Bath Spa". The Bookseller. Retrieved 9 November 2012.