The poet observed an oak tree in Louisiana which stood alone and whose dark Leaves were delightful. The oak was rough, unyielding, and lusty — it reminded the poet of himself, though he wondered "how it could utter joyous Leaves" all alone, without a friend — he would not be able to. The poet broke off a twig and carried it to his room. To him it seemed a strange "token . . . of manly love." And still he wonders how it could utter joyous messages through its Leaves "without . . . a lover near."
The twig is a phallic symbol. Even the live oak itself approximates the phallic and thus suggests manly love. Physical love is as elementary as the oak tree itself, but its luxuriant growth is an organic metaphor for the development of manly love in the region of the spirit. Whitman is surprised that the tree is able to express itself so luxuriantly alone — he could not write his "Leaves, or poems, without companionship.
This poem has only thirteen lines and it has neither a regular rhythmic nor a formal stanzaic pattern, but it has an affinity with the sonnet because of its lyricism. "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing" is a key poem of the Calamus group.