James Kirkup was brought up in South Shields, and educated at South Shields Secondary School and Durham University. During World War II he was a conscientious objector, and worked for the Forestry Commission and on the land in the Yorkshire Dales and at the Lansbury Gate Farm, Clavering, Essex. He taught at The Downs School in Colwall, Malvern, where W.H. Auden had earlier been a master. Kirkup wrote his first book of poetry, The Drowned Sailor at the Downs, which was published in 1947. From 1950 to 1952 he was the first Gregory Poetry Fellow at Leeds University, making him the first resident university poet in the United Kingdom.
In 1952 he moved south with his partner Derek to Gloucestershire and became visiting poet at Bath Academy of Art for the next three years. Moving on from Bath, he taught in a London grammar school before leaving England in 1956 to live and work in Europe, the Americas and the Far East. In Japan, he found acceptance and appreciation of his work, and he settled there for 30 years, lecturing in English literature at several universities.
Kirkup came to public attention in 1977, after the newspaper Gay News published his poem The Love That Dares to Speak Its Name, in which a Roman centurion describes his lust for and attraction to the crucified Jesus. The paper was successfully prosecuted in the Whitehouse v Lemon case, along with the editor, Dennis Lemon, for blasphemous libel under the Blasphemy Act 1697, by Mary Whitehouse, then Secretary of the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association.
After writing simple verses and rhymes from the age of six and the publication of his first poetry book, 'The Drowned Sailor' in 1947, Kirkup's published works encompassed several dozen collections of poetry, six volumes of autobiography, over a hundred monographs of original work and translations and thousands of shorter pieces in journals and periodicals. His skilled writing of haiku and tanka is acknowledged internationally. Many of his poems recalled his childhood days in the North East, and are featured in such publications as The Sense of the Visit, To the Ancestral North, Throwback, and Shields Sketches.
His home town of South Shields now holds a growing collection of his works in the Central Library, and artefacts from his time in Japan are housed in the nearby Museum. His last volume of poetry was published during the summer of 2008 by Red Squirrel Press, and was launched at a special event at Central Library in South Shields.
Amongst his honours, Kirkup held the Atlantic Award for Literature from the Rockefeller Foundation in 1950; he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1962; he won the Japan P.E.N. Club Prize for Poetry in 1965; and was awarded the Scott Moncrieff Prize for Translation in 1992.
In 1997 he was presented with the Japan Festival Foundation Award and invited by the Emperor and Empress to the Imperial New Year Poetry Reading at the Palace in Tokyo.
In the early 1990s Kirkup settled in Andorra. He continued his prolific work and correspondence, notably becoming a frequent contributor to the obituary section of the British newspaper The Independent until 2008. He also had several virtual books published on the Internet by Brindin Press. A great encourager of young talent in all aspects of the arts, he was the Honorary President of Switch Drama Company youth theatre.
Kirkup died in Andorra on 10 May 2009.
Kirkup's papers are held at Yale and South Shields.