In an academic career which ran in consonance with his literary one, and spanned four decades, he taught in various colleges and universities before retiring as the Director, Institute of English, University of Kerala. He published over 25 works, translated several important work to Malayalam, including Guru Granth Sahib and a book in French; as a scholarly editor he produced numerous anthologies on Indian literature, he was the chief editor of the Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literary Encyclopaedia . Another important work by him Indian Narratology, published by IGNCA, was the first of its kind to study various forms of the art of narration, in Indian literature, starting with Vedic and oral literature to Buddhist and contemporary literature.
Paniker (his preferred spelling) was born in Kavalam near Alappuzha to E. Naryanan Namboodiri, a Namboodiri Brahmin of Periyamana Illam, and M. Meenakshiamma. Fourth of the eight children, six of them girls, he grew up without any paternal affection, while his mother died when he was 12 years old, this early anguish and solitude deeply reflected in his poetry, which he started writing when he was in high school.
The Kavalam village, was also home to people like, K. M. Panikkar, historian and administrator, and playwright and poet, Kavalam Narayana Panicker, his cousin .He published his first poem at the age of 16, published in the Mathrubhoomi Weekly. He did his Intermediate at Malabar Christian College, Kozhikode, and B.A. Honours in English Literature from the University College, Thiruvananthapuram in 1951, thereafter he received his Master's degree from the University of Kerala.
Paniker took his doctorate from Indiana University with a doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Robert Lowell, supervised by Prof. Robert E. Gross, subsequently he did post-doctoral research in Yale and Harvard University (1981–82)
Paniker was a recipient of a number of honours including the Padma Shri, Kerala Sahitya Akademi award for poetry and criticism, Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award for poetry, 2005 Saraswati Samman for his collection of writings Ayyappa Panikerude Krithikal, Distinguished Teacher award, Mahakavi Ulloor award for poetry, Kabir Samman, International man of the year (IBC, Cambridge, UK), Indira Gandhi memorial fellowship with lead to the book, Indian Narratology published by IGNCA, Gangadhar Meher National award for poetry, Asan prize and Jana Sanskriti award (Abu Dhabi), Vayalar award, and Vallathol award.