In 1962, after more than fifteen years of living without running water, Lorine Niedecker finally got plumbing.1 The installation of pipes, toilet, and sink was a major event in the poet's Blackhawk Island home, requiring workers to dig a seven-foot ditch to run pipes under the road to a neighboring 275-foot deep well. Describing the occasion as "very dramatic," Niedecker celebrated her new pressure pump in a letter to fellow poet and long-time correspondent Louis Zukofsky:

I've got plumbing! A horrible two days with two men tramping through my house with mud on their feet (feet of clay) . . .

But my little pressure pump is a darling, jet, hums like a fan. The toilet tinkles a bit after the flushing. The faucet shinesI have no tub or shower or water heater, no rooms, heavens it was a trick to get my clothes and dresser and hip boots and vacuum sweeper back into the bathroom as it was . . . 2

Without municipal infrastructure to supply water, Niedecker's access to water depended on her pressure pump. Its self-regulating system of compressed air, pressure gauge, and safety valve promised, but did not always deliver, a steady stream of water. In the years that followed the pump's installation, Niedecker devoted several poems to it. Self-correcting and self-contained, the pump, she suggested, achieves balance through a set of operations analogous to those the poet undertakes in matching world and word, sense and sound, and subjective and objective realities.3 But if the pump offered a figure for the poet's task of form-making, it doubled as a means for the poet to investigate the possibility, and the desirability, of obtaining equilibrium across poetry, society, and nature alike.

Fig. 1: A photograph of Dan Bellini's drawing of Niedecker's home and pressure pump, which hangs on an interior wall of the cabin. Credit: Brandon Menke.

Read alongside mid-twentieth-century science's infatuation with homeostatic systems, Niedecker's poems invite the possibility that equilibrium might threaten, rather than constitute, the unfolding forms of poetry and nature. In this sense, the poems function as a critical pivot between the poet's bounded, objectivist lyrics and her late turn to fluid, open-ended long poems. By interrogating the notion of an ideal balance whether the balance of nature promoted by mid-twentieth-century ecologists or the balance of forces that the New Critics took to constitute the poem Niedecker reciprocally constructed nature and poetry as provisional forms open to further change. Like Niedecker's flood poems, these poems begin in the breakdown of normal operations and investigate the limits of a single social, infrastructural, and ecological working order.4 What sets the pump poems apart is their latent critique of the cybernetic construction of the planet as a stable, conservative, self-correcting system immune to the historical action of humans and nature, a construction that would become dominant by the end of the 1970s. Niedecker's resistance to notions of a bounded, idealized balance was both the condition of possibility for her late career turn to the long poem and her related rethinking of nature and poetry as open-ended processes.

The theory of homeostasis was originally developed to describe the living organism's ability to maintain the relatively stable conditions required to sustain life, from blood sugar to temperature, through negative feedback.5 In the midst of military research to support the Allied war effort during World War II, the medical concept of negative feedback was reanimated within emerging sciences such as cybernetics and ecology. Cybernetic concepts developed in conversation with military technology, as was the case in Norbert Wiener and Julian Bigelow's research on anti-aircraft gunnery.6 Faced with a fast, nimble fleet of Nazi airplanes, the Allies needed to quickly improve the accuracy of their ground-based human gunners. To apply mathematical analyses to this problem, the researchers reimagined the human operator as a mechanical device whose errors and corrections were capable of being modeled by mathematical equations. Noticing that "the pilot behaves like a servo-mechanism," a device that uses error-sensing feedback to correct its performance, Wiener and Bigelow modeled their human-machine system on a technology commonly used in thermostats.7 Niedecker's poetry accepts the cybernetic proposal that meaningful distinctions cannot be made between the behavior of machines and humans, pumps and plovers, and fabricated objects and raw nature. What nevertheless troubled the poet was the notion of homeostasis itself.

After the war, the concept of homeostasis was further refined by the British psychiatrist and cybernetician Ross Ashby. Ashby imagined advanced machines and organisms as entities that navigated a hostile, unstable world. To preserve their integrity, these systems drew on negative feedback to correct for environmentally-generated instabilities. At Gloucester's Barnwood House Hospital in 1948, Ashby produced the first electronic model of a homeostat from four interconnected Royal Air Force bomb control units. Each unit was electronically connected to the others through inputs and outputs, and when one unit was disturbed, the others cycled through thousands of random states until each block found the appropriate electric feedback level to return the entire system to stability. Ashby's homeostat drew on the medical concept of homeostasis to argue that if an organism or cybernetic system was pushed outside the bounds of its regulation and unable to return to homeostasis, the result would be death or catastrophic breakdown. As N. Katherine Hayles has put it, homeostasis was to become largely defined as "a universally desirable state."8

Niedecker's electric pump is, of course, a far cry from Cold War high technology. Despite her keen reading in science, it is unlikely that the poet ever directly encountered writings by cyberneticians, even Norbert Wiener's Cybernetics: Or Control and Communciation in the Animal and the Machine, which became a surprise bestseller upon its publication in 1948. (She likely did encounter Wiener's ideas in the pages of Charles Olson's Selected Writings, which she owned in her personal library, and through the writings of her correspondent and former lover Louis Zukofsky who had become interested in cybernetics by at least the mid-1960s.) Unlike the postwar novels of Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon, Niedecker's poems did not seek to explore the cultural implications of Cold War theories of information and entropy through literature. And, while some ecologically-minded poets, such as Diane di Prima and Richard Brautigan, did debate the environmental implications of the new science of cybernetics, Niedecker herself was silent on the subject.9

Whatever her direct connection to cybernetics, Niedecker's investigation of poetry's fraught relationship with instability recalls cybernetics's fascination with deviation and error. Returning to Ashby's homeostat, one can view cybernetics as a science oriented toward the conservative goal of preserving an ideal equilibrium by extinguishing error. From another perspective, however, the homeostat reveals the importance of disturbance and deviation in adjusting organic and advanced mechanical systems so they could properly function. As David Bates has put it, cybernetic systems can thus be understood to have "an existential relationship with error."10 Cybernetics, then, maintained an ambivalent attitude toward error, which was both an object requiring disciplinary control and, when held within bounds, the sign of a functioning system.

This ambiguity is at the center of "To my small / electric pump," a poem Niedecker wrote in the year following the installation of her new pump:

To my small
electric pump

To sense
and sound
this world

look to
your snifter

take oil
and hum11       

Niedecker links the poet's form-making capacities with the regulatory mechanism of the pump. Like the poet's nose, the pump's snifter valve admits the proper amount of air. The poem, recalling William Carlos Williams's definition of the poem as "a machine made out of words," equilibrates as pump and poet do.12 Just when its regular, two-syllable lines take on a third, the single syllable "valve," itself a regulatory mechanism of controlled release, returns the flow to its two syllable/two word pattern. Similarly, the poem's intensive enjambments set the reader up for a series of logical and sensory destabilizations, including the slippage of "sense" and "sound" between noun and verb of "to" between preposition and infinitive.

In a mere eight lines and fifteen words ten lines and twenty words if we count the title Niedecker displays even the most contained lyric as a site of ongoing recalibration. Picking out a course that swerves between deviation and the correction of deviation, the poem constructs itself as a device for equilibration much like the pump. The poem's conclusion, in which the clunky, awkward balancing act resolves into a "hum," is more ambivalent. Readers of Niedecker tend to interpret this "hum" as a metaphor for poetic voice, thus aligning pump and poem through their mutual task of achieving equilibrium.13 The final couplet, however, summons a radical uncertainty about the desirability of fixed orders in the first place. After all, it is the act of humming that puts an end to the poem's play with variation, raising the possibility that it is resolution through order, rather than deviations from order, that threatens the generative possibilities of poetry.

In "Nursery Rhyme," another poem written in the early 1960s, Niedecker extends her ambivalence over deviation was it a threat to or an existential feature of form? to an uncertainty over the context in which a specific working order gains significance. The poem takes place in the wake of domestic catastrophe when a defective ring seal on the month-old pump led to the flooding of the poet's living room, to then be immediately followed by the pump's electrical failure. This infrastructural breakdown leads into the poem's opening meditation on how humans come to serve and live through objects, including the infrastructures they depend on. Thus, the poet finds herself "nurs[ing] her pump" as she is forced to take on the growing cost of its maintenance, and the traveling repairman is known only by his occupation ("plumber"), place of work ("Montgomery Ward"), and vehicle ("Cadillac by marriage").14 Niedecker rewrites Marx's critique of the commodity in diminutive, domestic form, endowing objects with a social role that dwarves that of their human makers and users. Far from a neutral technological object, the pump is constructed in relation to economic exchange to suggest that the quest for homeostasis may be tied in with those working orders that constitute commodity capitalism. Just what, exactly, comprises such "a proper / balance" is the subject of the second and final stanza of "Nursery Rhyme":

A sensitive pump
           said he
that has at times a proper
       of water, air
and poetry15

Niedecker imagines the pump as a delicate, whimsical creature that the plumber must coax back into cooperation. The poem gives no account of what allows for its intermittent achievement of balance, and the emergence of order from disorder feels fortuitously unpredictable. In this sense, the pump is doubly "sensitive": it is responsive to the ordinary deviations of water and air required by its normal operations, and it can also be easily thrown out of these ordinary boundaries into catastrophic failure. Echoing its visual layout, with its seemingly wandering margin that turns out to be the irregular repetition of three different line indentations, the poem plays with the zone of indistinction between order and disorder, deviation and norm, bounded form and the dissolution of fixed structure.

Tracking the fall into and out of equilibrium, Niedecker's early experiments with the poetics of process not only confirm the elusiveness of balance whether in a poem or a pressure pump but they also suggest that systemic disruptions may be productive, at least of poems. While the pressure pump poems invite the possibility that moments of disturbance might animate, rather than merely threaten, poetic order, they are ultimately unable to flesh out an alternative to the permanent orders of homeostasis. Disturbance is either rapidly corrected for or cascades into the pump's catastrophic failure. The pump poems are, nonetheless, critical to the experiments in process Niedecker undertook by the late 1960s. Consider, for example, how the image of the pump shadows and sustains this passage from "Paean to Place":

I was the solitary plover
a pencil
       for a wing-bone
From the secret notes
I must tilt

upon the pressure
execute and adjust
      In us sea-air rhythm
"We live by the urgent wave
of the verse"16

Quoting Robert Duncan's essay "Towards an Open Universe," Niedecker depicts the poet as a tilting plover whose every precarious maneuver and rapid adjustment registers a response to momentary imbalances. Like the shore bird who adjusts her flight to invisible currents of air and feeds along the ever-shifting margin of the sea, the poet's pencil responds to the variable cadences of the "sea-air rhythm." The poem's natural imagery, moreover, does not break with Niedecker's earlier machine poetics; Niedecker's scientific terminology of "execute" and "adjust" is better suited to describe a technical instrument than a bird. But if the poem frays distinctions between nature and technology to reveal a continuity between plover and pump, its image of an open-ended line of flight one never to be tugged back to an idealized, proper state marks an important departure from the homeostatic conception of order. The poem traces a vision of poetry as a provisional, still unfolding process open to ongoing transformation.

It is no accident that such questions of poetry's relationship to a fixed, normative order would have preoccupied Niedecker in the 1960s, which was a period of intense self-reflection and poetic experimentation that culminated in the writing of several long poems, including "Wintergreen Ridge" and "Lake Superior," as well as the above-excerpted "Paean to Place." Scholars interested in Niedecker's pivot away from her early objectivist-influenced, condensed, bounded verse to these longer, more fluid poems critics such as Rachel Blau Duplessis, Jenny Penberthy, Victoria Bazin, and Jeffrey Peterson tend to interpret Niedecker's career as an arc of increasing subjectivism.17 In this reading, the pump figuratively enacts the mind's regulation of the flux of experience and the upwelling pressure that surfaces the unconscious mind. Refracted through mid-twentieth-century science, however, the pressure pump poems do not simply interrogate poetry's capacity to bind the flows of subjectivity. They also stage an incipient critique of homeostasis that queries the stability and unity of form in ways that ramify across material, mental, and aesthetic realms. A preview to the molten planetary geologies and hybridizing languages of "Lake Superior" and the quickened butterfly-rocks of "Wintergreen Ridge," Niedecker's investigations of the pump lay the groundwork for the improvisational, mutating vision of a planet and poem in process that is so palpable in her late poems.

To understand the stakes of this rewriting on a planetary scale, it is helpful to depart from the particulars of poetry to contrast it with a contemporaneous depiction of the planet then being forged within the cybernetically-influenced ecological sciences: Earth-as-Gaia. The theory of Gaia was first developed by James Lovelock, a British inventor and ex-NASA scientist who consulted for private corporations, including the fossil fuel conglomerate Royal Dutch Shell. Commissioned by Shell to investigate whether the planet's climate was controlled by tiny organisms such as algae, Lovelock leaned on cybernetics to propose that the Earth could be understood as a large-scale homeostatic system in which the biosphere, air, oceans, and land acted together "as a complex entity."18 This holistic system, moreover, was "a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life on this planet."19 As Leah Aronowky has argued, Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis facilitated climate change denialism by suggesting that the planet's self-regulating capacities enabled it to absorb and mitigate massive amounts of pollution without fundamentally altering its character.20 Far from a neutral concept, the notion of planetary homeostasis was forged in the laboratories of fossil fuel companies and served to justify decades of neoliberal environmental deregulation.

Niedecker's own investigations of homeostasis were conducted far from the scientific conferences, academic papers, and corporate laboratories in which the theory of Gaia was born. Nonetheless, they sound out the limits of homeostasis in a two-fold manner. On the one hand, they draw our attention to how the idea of a "working order" is enfolded in and shaped by the social contexts in which it operates, including the service repairs, plumbing bills, and economic exchanges in which it embroils the poet. Like the notion of a cybernetic planet, the pump binds her she is, as she puts it in another poem, "jet-bound" to broader circuits of commodity capitalism, infrastructural modernity, and economic exchange. If the medical concept of homeostasis served to describe the body's capacity for self-regulation, it requires tremendous investments economic, discursive, infrastructural to maintain when translated to socioecological domains. On the other hand, homeostasis proposes a view of fixed arrangements that is unable to countenance a nature that Niedecker had begun to see as "continuous life / through change."21 Niedecker's late turn to process sought to unravel this binding, beginning with the plover's sensitive, open-ended line of flight. Process, of course, poses problems of its own, including the risk that it naturalizes human impacts on the planet as part of a general flux, as in the climate change denier's refrain that "the climate has always changed." This is one way to understand why Niedecker punctuates the pages of "Lake Superior" with glimpses of the disastrous changes produced by the settler colonial genocide of Indigenous peoples and the extinction of North America's wild pigeons. Perhaps, then, one of the key lessons of Niedecker's turn to process is that no attempt to model poetry on nature homeostatic or otherwise can avoid the political sleights of hand that obfuscate the role of humans (and their historical social organization) in the production and reproduction of nature.

Samia Rahimtoola is a scholar and poet who has published widely on U.S. poetry, political ecology, and contemporary forms of environmental practice. She is an assistant professor of English at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. She first read Niedecker's poetry from a xerox of a xerox, handed to her by a friend.


  1. I would like to thank Anne-Lise Françoise, who shared my excitement over Niedecker's pressure pump and helped me to develop many of the arguments fleshed out here. Thanks are also due to Sarah Dimick and Brandon Menke who helped me to convey my thinking more crisply.[]
  2. Letter to Zukofsky, September 19, 1962. See Niedecker, Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky: 1931-1970, ed. Jenny Penberthy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 319-321. For a detailed account of Niedecker's plumbing woes see Margot Peters, Lorine Niedecker: A Poet's Life (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2011), 157-159.[]
  3. Jonathan Skinner, "Particular Attention: Lorine Niedecker's Natural Histories," in Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, ed. Elizabeth Willis (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008), 43.[]
  4. Samia Rahimtoola, "'Hung Up in the Flood': Resilience, Variability, and the Poetry of Lorine Niedecker," in Ecopoetics: Essays in the Field, ed. Angela Hume and Gillian Osborne (Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 2018), 189-207.[]
  5. See Walter Cannon, The Wisdom of the Body (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1939).[]
  6. For histories of the development of cybernetics in relation to the war effort include Peter Galison, "Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision," Critical Inquiry 21, no. 1 (1994): 228-266, Paul Edwards, The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in in Cold War America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1997), and Fred Turner, From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).[]
  7. Cited in Galison, 236.[]
  8. N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999): 66.[]
  9. See, for example, Diane di Prima's critique of a "cybernetic civilization" in "Revolutionary Letter 33" in Revolutionary Letters (San Francisco: Last Gasp of San Francisco, 2007): 46. For a celebration of "cybernetic ecology" see Richard Brautigan's "All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace," in The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968), 1. Brautigan's essay has been reprinted in the Atlantic Monthly, September 17, 2011,[]
  10. David Bates, "Unity, Plasticity, Catastrophe: Order and Pathology in the Cybernetic Era," in Catastrophes: A History and Theory of an Operative Concept, eds. Nitzan Lebovic and Andreas Killen (Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2014): 36.[]
  11. Niedecker, Collected Works, 197. This poem was submitted to Joglars in late 1963 and published in the magazine's first issue in Spring 1964.[]
  12. William Carlos Williams, "Author's Introduction to The Wedge" in Selected Essays of William Carlos Williams (New York: New Directions, 1954), 256.[]
  13. See, for example, Elizabeth Willis, "The Poetics of Affinity: Lorine Niedecker, William Morris, and the Art of Work," Contemporary Literature 46, 4 (2005): 591.[]
  14. Niedecker, CW, 285.[]
  15. Niedecker, CW, 285.[]
  16. Niedecker, CW, 265.[]
  17. See Duplessis, "Lorine Niedecker's "Paean to Place" and Its Fusion Poetics," Contemporary Literature, 46, no. 3 (Autumn 2005): 393-421 and Penberthy, "Writing Lake Superior," in in Radical Vernacular: Lorine Niedecker and the Poetics of Place, ed. Elizabeth Willis (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008), 61-79. Two examples that focus specifically on the pump poems to make this pivot are Victoria Bazin, "Lorine Niedecker, Henri Bergson, and the Poetics of Temporal Flow," Journal of American Studies, 46 no. 4, (2012): 977-996, and Jeffrey Peterson, "Lorine Niedecker: 'Before Machines," in Lorine Niedecker: Woman and Poet, ed. Jenny Penberthy (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1996), 245-279.[]
  18. James Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 10.[]
  19. Lovelock, 10.[]
  20. Leah Aronowsky, "Gas Guzzling Gaia, or: A Prehistory of Climate Change Denialism," Critical Inquiry 47 (Winter 2021): 306-327.[]
  21. Niedecker, CW, 249.[]