Thomas Shapcott grew up in a family of Scottish and Cornish descent. A twin and one of four brothers, he attended several state schools then Ipswich Grammar School. At the age of thirteen he discovered classical music which became his refuge from the 'very constricted suburban world of a petty bourgeois family in a small town'.
After six months at a business college, Shapcott joined his father's accountancy firm in 1951 as there were few other jobs available during an economic slump. He had wanted to become a journalist. The three months national service in 1954 had a profound impact on Shapcott as he discovered a sense of community with a diverse group of men and began to write poetry seriously for the first time. His first published poem appeared in the Sydney Bulletin in 1956. He visited Sydney in 1958 to make contact with other writers. Back in Brisbane, Shapcott continued his education at the University of Queensland, completing a degree in Accounting in 1961, and a degree in Arts in 1967. His poetry in the late 1960s won several prizes and his collaboration with the composer, Colin Brumby, began with the setting of 'Gilgamesh' to music in 1968. He has since collaborated with composers Alan John (q.v.), Bruce Mills, David Watson and others. Shapcott established his own accountancy firm in 1972, specialising in taxation for writers, artists and academics.
In 1971 Shapcott was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to visit America. This gave him the perspective on his past to write his much admired Shabbytown Calendar (1975) and to produce the landmark anthology Contemporary American and Australian Poetry (1976) . In 1973 Shapcott was appointed to the newly constituted Literature Board of the Australia Council by the Whitlam Government and served as its Director from 1983 to 1990. In 1975 Shapcott sold the accounting practice and was awarded a three year fellowship from the Literature Board. In 1978 he became a full time writer, receiving a number of literary grants and fellowships to continue his writing. He was the Executive Director of the National Book Council from 1991 to 1997. In 1997 he became the inaugural Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide, retiring from the position in 2005.
Shapcott played a prominent part in the rise of the 'New Australian Poetry' during the 1960s; he continues to be an influential critic in the field of contemporary Australian poetry and a generous mentor of younger writers.. Throughout his prolific career Shapcott has produced novels, poetry, short stories, libretti, dramas and reviews. His plays include 'A Game Around Goldie: A Poem for Opera', 'Ishtar's Mirror', 'Motel Territory: A Sequence of 3 One-Act Plays', 'Motel Room: A Play in One Act'; 'Public Bar: A Play in One Act'; 'Pursuant to the Income Tax Assessment Act 1936 as Amended' and two radio dramas: 'The Litanies of Julia Pastrana' (1983) and 'A Canticle for Karoly Pulszky ' (1982). There was also a dance piece, 'Dhang Hyang Kapulugan: Dance of an Old Tiger'. Shapcott's poetry demonstrates an abiding interest in the experimental possibilities of language and is frequently autobiographical in theme, drawing in strands from history and mythology.
Shapcott has won many prestigious awards for his poetry and prose. In 1989 Shapcott was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Literature from Macquarie University, and was also honoured with the Order of Australia for his services to literature.
In 2009, Professor Emeritus Shapcott was awarded a Doctorate of Letters honoris causa from the University of Queensland.