Born in Brooklyn, Alan Dugan spent most of his life in New York City. His stint in the Army Air Corps during World War II was of importance to him, and a number of his first published poems were portraits of servicemen. He attended Queens College and Olivet College, and received his B.A. degree from Mexico City College. He married Judith Shahn, the daughter of the painter Ben Shahn. After the war, he held a number of jobs in New York City, working in advertising and publishing and as a maker of models for a medical supply house. These jobs made him dissatisfied with the world of office work, which he satirized in his poetry.
The success of his first book of poems in 1961 led to his winning a series of awards and fellowships that gave him more time for his poetry. He was a member of the faculty at Sarah Lawrence College from 1967 through 1971, and he helped found the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1968. In 1985, he received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Dugan gave many poetry readings, and after adjusting to his high voice and the purposely undramatic, cold presentation, audiences found that his style of reading fit the poems.