Stancu was born in 1902 in Salcia, a village in Teleorman County, Romania. After leaving school at the age of thirteen he worked at various jobs. In 1921, with the help of Gala Galaction, he became a journalist. In 1933 he finished his studies in literature and philosophy at the University of Bucharest. His first volume of poetry, Poeme simple (Simple Poems), appeared in 1927, receiving the Romanian Writers' Prize.
During World War II, he was imprisoned for his opposition to the fascist government of Ion Antonescu (see Romania during World War II), and spent time in the Târgu Jiu internment camp for political prisoners. In 1946, he became a director of Romania's National Theater. After the Communist regime was established, he was a member of the Romanian Academy and the President of the Romanian Writers' Union (1966–1974). He won the Romanian State Prize for Literature and, in 1971, he was awarded the Herder Prize by the Austrian government.
Between 1926 and 1944 Stancu published six volumes of poetry. In 1948 his first novel, Desculț (Barefoot), was published. It has been translated into thirty languages, being very actively promoted by the Communist regime. Other important novels are Şatra (The Gypsy Tribe), and Jocul cu moartea (A Gamble with Death).