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I’ve been writing poetry since I was 15 years old. I’ve written hundreds of poems over more than a half century. That’s a lot of poems and a long time. But no poem of mine has ever troubled me more or caused me more difficulty than this one:

Old Men Eating Lunch

for Paige

Once a month my pals and I eat lunch
at the Amish Market in Mullica Hill.
We chose that place because the food
is cheap. And good. But we keep
coming back to see the waitress.
She’s always there, month after month,
and such a lovely girl, always smiling,
always ready to deflect our stupid jokes,
young enough to be our daughter, even
younger. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing
tawdry in it. Geez, we’re all on Medicare,
all three married, very much in love
with our wives. But our eyes still work,
and we’re not too old to recognize
“a thing of beauty” when we see one.

You can probably see what the problem is: “a thing of beauty” reduces the young woman to an inanimate “thing” in the eyes of three old men (one thinks of Jethro Tull’s Aqualung “eyeing little girls with bad intent”), and thus we are guilty of “objectifying” women, turning them into faceless objects of sexual desire.

That is not at all what’s going on here, I would like to say and even insist. I’ve tried to make that clear by imbedding multiple obvious cues that we represent no threat to anyone female (or male for that matter). Just three old friends enjoying each other and the fleeting attention of an attractive waitress.

One male poet with whom I’ve been sharing poem drafts for decades warned, “You are certainly aware of feminist philosophy that attacks the ‘male gaze.’ Why leave yourself open to attack? Given the current political climate, I would rewrite the last three lines to eliminate any charge of sexism.” Another man wrote, “I know you have ‘thing of beauty’ in quotation marks, but I would delete ‘thing’ as too objectifying of a woman.”

Never mind that the three words in quotes are an homage to John Keats’s “Endymion,” which begins: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” I tried multiple variations of those last few lines,

But she’s delightful, bright, and willing
to indulge three harmless aging men
who wish her only well.

But we’re not too old to recognize
a good poem when we see it.

But we’re not stupid,
and we’re not too old to appreciate
a good poem when we see one.

But, well, I’m sorry (honestly, you have no idea how sorry), but nothing works for me without the reference to Keats.

So I decided to poll a few of my female friends. Here’s what I got in reply:

  • “It’s fine with me! It’s important and good to enjoy beauty, kindness, and skill in young women, men, people.”
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  • “I imagine the experience not just of seeing but also of interacting (flirting?) with the young woman makes you feel a bit more alive. I’m not offended by your appreciation of beauty, but beware of turning the subject into an object.”
  • “‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever. It’s loveliness increases. It will never pass into nothingness.’ Keats. No offense taken.”
  • “I don’t see any issue with this poem. Don’t want to speak for anyone else, but no problem on my end.”
  • “I do find it offensive as you are objectifying the waitress here.”
  • “I don’t find it offensive, but can imagine that some might. [My 16-year-old daughter] thought it was ‘pervy’ until I explained the ‘thing of beauty’ quote; then she thought it was sweet.”
  • “I love the poem! Offensive? Not at all!!!”
  • “Definitely not offensive. Actually refreshing that you are being honest! ‘. . . a joy forever.’”
  • “I love you and the image of you lunching with your buddies. But it’s a little creepy from the female perspective – or at least this female.”
  • “‘. . . is a joy forever.’ I think it’s lovely.”
  • “I have zero problem with it. In fact I like it. That's just me. Good to cast your net wide for feedback and sweet that you asked.”

So what do I do when even the women I know cannot agree on how they feel about this poem, let alone how I should feel? And I find myself wondering: are men supposed to pretend that there are no beautiful women in the world, or that we do not notice them? Certainly, that waitress has absolutely no reason to fear my friends and me, to see us as some kind of threat, or as anything other than appreciative customers who tip well.

But I am also well aware that women have much to fear from men, that there are far too many male predators constantly in search of victims, that some of them could even be old gray-haired married guys on Medicare. I have numerous female friends who have told me horrible experiences that each has personally endured.

I certainly do not want to be part of the problem, and if this poem leaves any woman feeling objectified, that’s one too many. Nevertheless, it makes me sad that I cannot celebrate a bright and lovely woman in a poem without leaving myself open to accusations of sexism and objectification.

But then, a lot of things in today’s world make me sad. And the list gets longer by the day. For better or worse, I doubt that this poem will ever see print again.

W. D. Ehrhart’s latest collections are Thank You for Your Service: Collected Poems (2019), and a chapbook, Wolves in Winter: Poems 2019-2021.