Born in a factory town in Ohio, James Wright grew up among poverty and desolation, which profoundly influenced his writing. He used his poetry as a mode to discuss his political and social concerns. The subjects of his early work include people who have lost love or have been marginalized from society, and the poems offer the reader a sense of that isolation.
His first book, The Green Wall, was selected by W. H. Auden for publication in the Yale Younger Poets Series. With his third book, The Branch Will Not Break, Wright made a significant departure from his two previous volumes, which were both formalist in nature. His new work encompassed a startling mix of careful detail and surprising leaps of thought and structure in loose and open verses. The Branch Will Not Break signaled a new direction that poetry would take towards experimental free verse, a course that critics could only mislabel as "surrealistic" at the time.
Influenced by his teachers at University of Washington, Stanley Kunitz and Theodore Roethke, along with his deepening friendship with Robert Bly, Wright produced the beautiful and radical poems found in The Branch Will Not Break. The volume includes his widely loved poem, "The Blessing," a poem of friendship dedicated to Bly, in which they come across two ponies in a field:
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
The Branch Will Not Break also contains "Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio," his famous critique of heroism, pointedly followed by "Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy's Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota," which contains the devastating final line, "I have wasted my life."