James McMichael was born in Pasadena, California. McMichael is unusually sensitive to place: what Paterson, New Jersey, was to William Carlos Williams, Pasadena is to him. His father’s profession—he worked in real-estate—increased that sensitivity. McMichael has written several books of poems, as well as a study of James Joyce, Ulysses and Justice (1991), but his claim on readers’ attention rests primarily on his long poem Four Good Things (1980), a sprawling autobiographical meditation on life, death, and real-estate, set in McMichael’s native southern California. McMichael’s poetic line and rhythm verge on prose; the weakly enjambed verse paragraphs allow an essayistic voice to emerge, following its own connections and associations. The poem opens with the poet’s mother dying of cancer, his father pushing the development of Pasadena—two kinds of modern blight, cell division out of control. It is loose and capacious enough to hold a capsule history of Pasadena, its architectural growth amid the surrounding desert serving as a figure for the growth of the poet’s mind and of the poem. McMichael’s earlier books are Against the Falling Evil (1971) and The Lover’s Familiar (1978); a discerning essay on his work is included in Robert Hass’s Twentieth Century Pleasures: Prose on Poetry (1984).
McMichael’s most recent collection, Capacity (2006), continues his exploration of place and society but is set in remoter regions: Britain during the World War II Blitz, and Ireland during the potato famine. In 1970 he married his second wife, Phylinda Wallace, a translator, and has two children, Robert and Geoffrey. He is currently a professor of English in the School of Humanities at the University of California, Irvine.