James McMichael was born in Pasadena, California, on July 19, 1939. His father, James McMichael, was a real estate developer, a source of material for his best-known long poem, Four Good Things. He received a B.A. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1961, and a Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1965. That same year, he began teaching at the University of California, Irvine, where he has directed the masters poetry writing program. His marriage to Barbara Cress in 1961 ended in divorce, and he married Phylinda Wallace in 1970. The couple had two children but were later divorced.