I Think that I Shall Never See a Billboard Lovely as a Tree

Joyce Kilmer? Ogden Nash? Confucious? Anonymous?

freeway10Dear Quote Investigator: April is National Poetry Month in the U. S., and Arbor Day also occurs in this month. A famous poem by Joyce Kilmer begins with the following couplet: 1

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A comical riff on this work begins with the following lines:

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.

I have seen multiple versions of this humorous poem that criticizes the massive signs next to highways. Would you please determine the proper text and the creator’s identity?

Quote Investigator: The October 15, 1932 issue of “The New Yorker” published a poem titled “Song of the Open Road” by Ogden Nash who was a popular wordsmith of light verse. This was the earliest publication known to QI: 2

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
—OGDEN NASH

Over the decades, variants of the text have evolved. By 1940 Ogden Nash had produced a modified version of his own verse. He published a collection of works titled “The Face is Familiar” containing an instance of the poem that replaced the word “perhaps” with the word “indeed”. This made the point of the poem more emphatic.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In November 1932 the “Queen City Mail” newspaper of Spearfish, South Dakota printed the verse, but gave a comical ascription meaning “another poem”: 3

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
—Nother Pome

Also in November 1932 the verse was reprinted in “The Bessemer Herald” of Bessemer, Michigan, and the ascription provided was accurate: “Ogden Nash in the New Yorker”. 4

In December 1932 a meeting of a garden club was held in Macon, Georgia and the local paper reported that a horticulturist who spoke delivered a slightly altered version of the poem: 5

In closing, Mr. Harvey deplored the fearful abuse holly and dogwood trees suffer and the fact that billboards hide so much that is lovely along the roadside, closing with this paraphrase:

“I think I shall never see a billboard
“As lovely as a tree,
“I think unless the billboards fall,
“I shall never see the tree at all.”

In 1938 a newspaper in Malvern, Iowa printed a column written by members of the local garden club, and the piece included another variant of the poem: 6

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
And soon, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.

In 1940 Nash published “The Face is Familiar: The Selected Verse of Ogden Nash”, and he decided to print an updated version of his work with the word “indeed” at the beginning of the third line. This shifted the tone of the verse: 7

I think that I shall never see
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Indeed, unless the billboards fall
I’ll never see a tree at all.

In March 1940 the “Valley Morning Star” newspaper in Harlingen, Texas published a column titled “Confucius Say” that printed contest entries sent to the paper by readers. Every entry consisted of an adage prefaced by the phrase “Confucius Say”; however, the ascription to the Asian sage was not intended to be taken seriously. Competitions of this type help to demonstrate the artificially amplified ubiquity of the attribution. 8

Confucius say I think I shall never see, a billboard lovely as a tree. Perhaps unless the billboards fall, I’ll never see a tree at all. Mrs. Arthur J. Carpenter, Rio Hondo.

In conclusion, QI believes that the work should be credited to Ogden Nash. He released two versions; one was printed in “The New Yorker” in 1932, and another appeared in “The Face is Familiar” in 1940. Select the version you like the best.

Image Notes: Landscape with tree from bessi at Pixabay. Australian freeway from pattyjansen at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Sarah whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Sarah knew the poem was written by Nash and wished to know whether “perhaps” or “indeed” was in the original. Also, special thanks to the discussants on the Wombats list.)

Notes:

  1. Date: 1913 October, Periodical: Boys’ Life, Poem title: Trees, Poem author: Joyce Kilmer, Quote Page 2, Publisher: Boy Scouts of America, Inc. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. Date: 1932 October 15, Periodical: The New Yorker, Poem title: Song of the Open Road, Poem author: Ogden Nash, Quote Page 18, Column 2, Publisher: F.R. Publishing Corporation, New York. (Online Archive of page scans of The New Yorker; accessed archives.newyorker.com April 11, 2015)
  3. 1932 November 9, Queen City Mail, Tweaks by Uncle Dick, (Untitled poem), Quote Page 4, Column 5, Spearfish, South Dakota. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1932 November 11, The Bessemer Herald, Pick & Axe, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Bessemer, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1932 December 4, The Macon Telegraph and News (Macon Telegraph), Vineville Garden Club Told of Georgia Trees, Quote Page 3, Column 7 and 8, Macon, Georgia. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1938 February 17, The Malvern Leader, Thro’ the Garden Gate, Edited by the Malvern Garden Club, Quote Page 2, Column 7, Malvern, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  7. Year: 1941 (First Published in 1940), Title: The Face is Familiar: The Selected Verse of Ogden Nash, Author: Ogden Nash, Poem: Song of the Open Road, Quote Page 21, Publisher: Garden City Publishing Company, Garden City, New York . (Verified with scans)
  8. 1940 March 9 Valley Morning Star, Confucius Say, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Harlingen, Texas. (Newspapers_com)