Strand was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, Canada. His early years were spent in North America, while much of his teenage years were spent in South and Central America. IN 1957, he earned his B.A. from Antioch College in Ohio. Strand then studied painting under Josef Albers at Yale University where he earned a B.F.A in 1959. On a Fulbright Scholarship, Strand studied nineteenth-century Italian poetry in Italy during 1960-1961. He attended the Iowa Writers' Workshop the following year and earned a Master of Fine Arts in 1962. In 1965 he spent a year in Brazil as a Fulbright Lecturer. Strand has since taught at many universities and published eleven books of poetry, in addition to translations from the poetry of Rafael Alberti and Carlos Drummond de Andrade, among others. In 1997, he left Johns Hopkins University to accept the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professorship of Social Thought at the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. He currently teaches at Columbia University.
In 1981, Strand was elected a member of The American Academy of Arts and Letters. He served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress during the 1990-1991 term. Strand has received numerous awards including a MacArthur Fellowship in 1987 and the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Blizzard of One.