Van Duyn was born in Waterloo, Iowa. She grew up in the small town of Eldora (pop. 3,200) where she read voraciously in the town library and wrote poems secretly in notebooks from her grade school years to her high school years. Van Duyn earned a B.A. degree from Northern Iowa University in 1942, and an M.A. from the University of Iowa in 1943, the year she married Jarvis Thurston. She and Thurston studied in the Ph.D. program at Iowa. In 1946 she was hired as an instructor at the University of Louisville when her husband became an assistant professor there. Together they began Perspective: A Quarterly of Literature in 1947 and shifted that journal to Washington University in St. Louis when they moved there in 1950. Van Duyn was a lecturer in the University College adult education program until her retirement in 1990. In 1983, a year after she had published her fifth book of poems, she was named an adjunct Professor in the English Department and became the "Visiting Hurst Professor" in 1987, the year she was invited to be a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Van Duyn was a friend of poet James Merrill and was instrumental in securing his papers for the Washington University Special Collections in the mid 1960s. She died of bone cancer at her home in University City, Missouri, on December 2, 2004, aged 83.
Van Duyn won every major U.S. prize for poetry, including the National Book Award for Poetry for To See, To Take (1971), the Bollingen Prize (1971), the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize (1989), and the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1991 for Near Changes (1990). She was the U.S. Poet Laureate between 1992 and 1993. Despite her accolades, her career fluctuated between praise and obscurity. Her views of love and marriage ranged from the scathing to the optimistic. In "What I Want to Say", she wrote of love:
It is the absolute narrowing of possibilities
and everyone, down to the last man
But in "Late Loving", she wrote:
Love is finding the familiar dear
To See, To Take was a collection of poems that, in 1970, gathered together three previous books and some uncollected work, and won the National Book Award for Poetry. In 1981 she became a fellow in the Academy of American Poets and then, in 1985, one of the twelve Chancellors who serve for life. A recent Collected Poems, If It Be Not I (1992) included four volumes that had appeared since her first collected poems. It was published simultaneously with a new collection of poetry, Firefall.
In 1993 she was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.