A native of Budapest, Rába received his diploma from the University of Budapest in Hungarian and French Language and Literature. In 1957 he was employed at the Literary Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, a quiet and scholarly post that gave him the opportunity to avoid the politics of the Kádár regime. He received his Ph.D. in 1983.
In marked contrast to the intellectual and elegiac poetry of his generation, Rába's early poetry is suffused with objective and ironic elements, reminiscent of the literature of the 19th century. His subsequent work develops a terse poetic style - the narrative epic content is expounded through a condensed series of visions. This idiosyncratic style enables Rába to elucidate the dramatic turns of life. The poetry of his maturity unites dreams, visions, culture, erudition, and philosophy in a unique synthesis; his epic and dramatic constructions lend a new objectivity to his critical moods and sympathetic sentiments. He resurrects the song form and also creates memorable prose-poems.
He received the Attila József Prize in 1983 and the Széchenyi Prize in 1993.