James Ragan was born in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, to Czechoslovakian parents and grew up in Pittsburgh. He earned an MA and a PhD in English from Ohio University. The author of the poetry collections In the Talking Hours (1979), Womb-Weary (1990), The Hunger Wall (1995), Lusions (1997), and Too Long a Solitude (2009), he also co-edited and translated from the Russian, with Albert C. Todd, Yevgeny Yevtushenko: Collected Poetry, 1952–1990 (1991). In his work, Ragan frequently draws on his international travels and observations of political dramas as well as more personal concerns.

A Fulbright professor in Yugoslavia, China, and the Czech Republic, Ragan also served as a distinguished professor at Charles University in Prague for 16 years. He has given poetry readings in a number of international venues, among them the First International Poetry Festival in Moscow in 1985 and the United Nations. In 1997, he was named an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2008, he gave the keynote address at the World Literature Today Conference in Beijing, China.

A screenwriter for Paramount Pictures and a playwright, Ragan directed the University of Southern California Master of Professional Writing program for 25 years.