He was born in Závažná Poruba, in the Zilina region. As a student at the Faculty of Arts at Comenius University in Bratislava he studied Slovak language and literature, and history. From 1952-1989 he lectured at the university on the history of Slovak and Czech literature. From 1971-1972 he taught at a university in Naples. He retired in 1990 and lived with his family in Bratislava. At age 80 he died at University Hospital in that city.
Rúfus published his first poems in the 1940s and his first collection, Až dozrieme ("When We Grow Mature") in 1956. Another 20 poetry books followed. A children's book, Modlitbičky ("Little Prayers") has been called his most successful work. Toward the end of his life he also published Báseň a čas ("Poem and Time") and Vernosť ("Fidelity").
In a book of essays, Človek, čas a tvorba ("Human, Time and Creation"), he examined questions of poetry and its relation to truth, homeland and time.
Rufus, whose works have been translated into 15 languages, was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature three times since 1991. He became the first winner of the international Crane Summit Award for poetry 2008. As part of the award, his poems will be translated into Chinese.