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I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing, 
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches, 
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of dark green, 
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself, 
But I wonder’d how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there 
     without its friend near, for I knew I could not, 
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined 
     around it a little moss, 
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room, 
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends, 
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,) 
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love; 
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary 
     in a wide flat space, 
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near, 
I know very well I could not.

—Walt Whitman

Carl Phillips reads Walt Whitman's “I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing”

Transcription of Commentary

I chose that poem because of how striking it was for me, as a gay writer, to find that in the 19th century a poet like Walt Whitman was already celebrating, not only love and the need for it, but same-sex love in particular—what he calls manly love, which I think of as same-sex love, but also of camaraderie among men. And what I am particularly struck by is how, so early in our country’s history, he is making, or trying to make, a space for difference by showing how much we have in common, mainly, the need for love, the need for company and companionship, whoever we are. And by that image of twining the twig with the moss, taking that image of the natural world as a way of representing what he’s talking about, this manly love, Whitman seems to be suggesting that that kind of love is as instinctive and natural as what happens in the vegetal world and, if that’s the case, how can any of it be wrong?

This poem is in the public domain.

Related Resources

Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips

Read “The Need for Dreaming” by Carl Phillips

Carl Phillips (1959- ) was born in Everett, Washington. He is the author of 13 poetry collections, including Pastoral (2000), which won the Lambda Literary Award for Poetry; Double Shadow (2011), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Poetry; and most recently, Reconnaissance (2015), winner of the Lambda Literary Award and the PEN Center USA Award. He is the recipient of fellowships from the Academy of American Poets and the Guggenheim Foundation, as well as the Theodore Roethke Memorial Foundation Poetry Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, an Award in Literature from American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Academy of American Poets Prize. In 1998 he received a Witter Bynner Fellowship. A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 2006-2012, Phillips is a Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. Photo credit: Dinty W. Moore.

Learn more about Carl Phillips at The Poetry Foundation

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) has been called the father of American poetry, and is best remembered for his foundational book of poems Leaves of Grass (1855). Born in New York, he began an apprenticeship at the age of 12 in the printing trade. He went on to become a journalist, eventually leaving his home state to become editor of the New Orleans Crescent. He returned to Brooklyn where he founded the Brooklyn Freeman, and continued to write and develop his unique style of free verse. With the publication of Leaves of Grass, Whitman gained renown among the transcendentalist school of American intellectuals, which included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman left New York to nurse wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C. but eventually settled in Camden, New Jersey, where he lived until his death.

Learn more about Walt Whitman at The Poetry Foundation