Throughout his life, the poet James Merrill was given to nearly incessant doodling. In his second collection, the Country of a Thousand Years of Peace, he devoted a poem to his compulsion—and by juxtaposing several typescript drafts of “The Doodler” with some pages from his journals, one sees at once how just his description was of sketches that “spread like lichens” amid recurrent “stars, circles linked, or a baroque motif.”

Charting the progression from draft to draft—there are fifteen extant of “The Doodler”; the thirteenth is transcribed here--provides the reader with tonal lessons from a poetic craftsman. The seriousness of early drafts gives way to playfulness in the last: “more intimate” doodles become “more animate,” and sullen moments are lightened, as when Merrill changes the final period to an exclamation point. The finished poem celebrates the out-of-control imagination that fed Merrill’s pages with both verse and illustration, but the revisions here remind us of the imagination’s near and fruitful misses.

—Matthew S. McClelland and Rachel Slaughter


James Merrill’s “The Doodler,” second draft.


James Merrill journal page, 1950.