In 1996, American poet Hayden Carruth published his poem “I, I, I” in his collection, Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991–1995. At that time, Carruth was already an established and popular poet who had published many collections of poetry since 1959. While he is viewed as a proponent of twentieth-century modernism, he defies categorization and, indeed, has consciously resisted it. In his poetry, Carruth moves easily between free verse and verse written in rhyme and meter.
Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems 1991–1996 was generally well received by critics and won a National Book Award in poetry for the poet in the year 1996. “I, I, I” is written in non-rhyming free verse. Thematically, the poem is a poetic version of the bildungsroman (a novel dealing with the development or coming-of-age of a young protagonist). It raises and, to some extent answers, questions about self-identity through a memorable boyhood experience of the speaker. The poet’s treatment of the experience is highly personal but shows the influence of existentialism and Eastern mysticism. The poem appears to be autobiographical, in that it is written in the first person and the speaker’s physical appearance matches that of Carruth himself.
In “I, I, I,” the speaker tells of an incident that happened in his boyhood. If it is assumed that Carruth is describing his own experience, this would have taken place in the 1920s. The speaker begins by describing his understanding of the nature of his self from the point of view of mature adulthood. The self is divided into two aspects: the self and the observing self; “The self that acts and the self that watches.” He now knows that this realization, this self-awareness, marks the point where the mind of an individual or of a species begins.
The speaker shifts back in time to his boyhood. He struggles to understand the nature of his self. He can grasp the idea of the first self that watches, but the fact that he (“I”) can know this watching self means that there must be another “I” who is the knower, a self beyond the first watching self. If he can know this other watching self, then there must be yet another self, watching that watching self, and so on to infinity. As the speaker asks, remembering the bewilderment of his boyhood, “where does it end?”
The speaker remembers an important incident in his childhood that related to his questions regarding the self. His mother sends him to the barbershop to get his hair cut. She tells him to inform the barber that he needs it to be “cut for a part,” with the hair parted on one side. It is the first time that he has been to the barber’s for a haircut, as prior to this, his mother has always cut his hair in a “dutch boy” style—the kind of haircut that results from placing a bowl on a child’s head and cutting around it.
The boy’s mother sends him to the barbershop on his own because the shop has a pool table in the back. In the small town where they lived, this was the men’s club, and women never ventured there. He wonders whether it was his first excursion into the world on his own and concludes that it may have been.
The boy sits in the barber’s big chair. In front of him on the wall is a huge mirror, and behind him on another wall is another mirror. He looks at his image in the mirror in front of him. His image is reflected by the mirror behind him, so that he sees a reflection of his “small strange blond head” repeated in ever diminishing images, one behind another. He strains to see the farthest one, but cannot. He sits rigidly in silence.
The barber finishes cutting the boy’s hair. He blows the pieces of hair from the boy’s neck and removes the sheet that he has put around his shoulders. The boy climbs down from the chair. He runs from “that cave of mirrors,” the barbershop, to his home a mile and a half away. He goes to his room under the eaves of his house, and it seems to him to be another cave. There is one difference, however: this cave has no mirrors. The boy realizes that he no longer needs mirrors. He has reached an understanding that makes them redundant.