The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” is a short lyric poem made up of thirteen lines of free verse (verse written in no traditional meter). The speaker of the poem may be identified with the poet or at least with “Walt Whitman,” as the reader comes to know him in Leaves of Grass, the book in which this poem appears. The poem begins with a memory: The poet remembers the live oak tree he saw standing by itself in Louisiana, whose “rude” and “lusty” look reminded the poet of himself. In one important respect, however, the tree was very different from the poet, for the tree was “uttering joyous leaves” even though it stood without another of its kind (a “companion”) nearby, and this is something that the poet knew he could never do. That the tree was in Louisiana may have some autobiographical significance: Whitman, who lived most of his life in New York and New Jersey, spent some time in Louisiana. In any case, the live oak flourishes in Louisiana, and the geographical reference grounds the poem in fact. The poet is speaking of a real tree he actually saw rather than of a metaphor for his feelings.

In speaking of the tree as “uttering” its leaves, Whitman uses a word that is perfectly appropriate on a literal level. In this context, “utter” can simply mean to “put forth” or “sprout.” However, since the word is more commonly used to describe human speech and since Whitman habitually refers to his poems as...

(The entire section is 512 words.)