Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing" (1860)
Author:
Smeller, Carl
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem was originally published as number 20 in the "Calamus" cluster of the 1860 Leaves of Grass. Its text remained the same in all succeeding editions, except for minor alterations in punctuation. It took its first line as its title from 1867 onward.

Whitman's manuscripts show that this poem began as the second in a twelve-poem sequence prospectively entitled "Live Oak with Moss," in which the live-oak serves as the primary botanic symbol of male same-sex attachments; its accompanying poems stress both the desire to withdraw from conventional society into a protected homosexual subculture and the pain of unrequited homoerotic longings. However, Whitman later chose the more phallic calamus root as his main symbol for "adhesiveness" and added thirty-three poems—many of which unambivalently celebrate "the need of comrades" ("In Paths Untrodden")—to form "Calamus."

Because of this revision in Whitman's original conception, "Calamus" vacillates between the urge to flee society and the project of elevating "adhesiveness" into a redemptive social paradigm. In poems such as "When I Heard at the Close of the Day" (1860), "Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances" (1860), and "Recorders Ages Hence" (1860), Whitman abjures his public, poetic vocation in favor of a private, romantic life which forgoes poetry altogether. "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing," in Kerry Larson's estimation, is more successful at balancing these two alternatives without devaluing either.

"Louisiana Live-Oak" encapsulates this conflict of desires as a tension between homoerotic emotions unrepresentable in poetry and Whitman's stance of poetic self-sufficiency. Byrne Fone has shown that the need for affection and the impossibility of solitude which "Louisiana Live-Oak" ultimately assert are pervasive themes in Whitman's early, pre-Leaves poetry. By contrast, Michael Moon argues that Whitman recognizes in the live-oak's ability to "utter joyous leaves" while "standing alone" a reflected image of his own poetic practice. But the poet's subsequent avowal of desire for his "own dear friends" and his reiterated denial that he could "utter joyous leaves" while remaining solitary mask his anxiety that he has written and might continue to write poems out of frustrated desire, as he does in "Sometimes with One I Love" (1860) and the eventually rejected "Calamus" number 9—["Hours Continuing Long"] (1860).

Bibliography

Fone, Byrne R.S. Masculine Landscapes: Walt Whitman and the Homoerotic Text. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1992.

Larson, Kerry C. Whitman's Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in "Leaves of Grass." Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1991.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

____. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.


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