Van den Heuvel was born in Biddeford, Maine, and grew up in Maine and New Hampshire. He lives in New York City with his wife Leonia Leigh Larrecq.
He first discovered haiku in 1958 at a poetry reading in San Francisco where he heard Gary Snyder mention it at a poetry reading. He returned to the East Coast the following year and continued composing haiku. He became the house poet of a Boston coffee house, reading haiku and other poetry to jazz musical accompaniment. By 1961 he was reading haiku at a New York City coffeehouse. In 1971 he joined the Haiku Society of America and became its president in 1978.
Van den Heuvel has published at least 12 books of his own haiku, including one on baseball. He is best known as the editor of the three editions of The Haiku Anthology; the original Haiku Anthology published in 1974 by Doubleday, the second edition published in 1986 by Simon & Schuster, and the third edition published in 1999 by Norton.
The Haiku Society of America has given van den Heuvel three Merit Book Awards for his haiku. He has been the honorary curator of the American Haiku Archives at the California State Library at Sacramento for the 1999-2000 season. He also served as Newsweek magazine’s poetry editor until he retired in 1988. He was the United States representative to the 1990 International Haiku Symposium in Matsuyama. At the World Haiku Festival held in London and Oxford in 2000, he received a World Haiku Achievement Award. In 2002, he was awarded The Masaoka Shiki International Haiku Prize in Matsuyama, for his writing and editing of haiku books.
He has been described in The Alsop Review as "an intelligent and unflagging spokesperson for haiku".