| Introduction

   | RL Installation

   | Codexspace

   | Publications

   | Writer

   | Precedents


IN #








Book Unbound


Leaving City


Golden Lion


Moods &




IN 1.2


   | Of Programmatology

   | Overview

   | Why?

   | Transliteration

   | Hyper-/Cyber-/Poetext



   | generated texts:
   : First Lesson
   : Actual Possession
     of the World
   : Leaves
     from Book Unbound



   : list of previous talks
   : installations &
   : performances
   : relating to IN



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I N D R A ' S : N E T
: o r :

machine modulated poetry | books unbound
(Plastic) Literary Objects
POtential LIterary OUtlawry


Networked and programmable media have opened up a vast working space which now includes a field of swiftly evolving artistic forms. Within this field the potential for new types of creative writing remains largely unexplored.

The small body of literature which does exist on and for programmable machines sometimes demands their special capabilities not only for the presentation, but also for the composition and generation of the finished work.

These pages are a brief introduction to some of the work in 'machine modulated poetry' which John Cayley has been developing since the late 1970s. Current work may be seen as part of a wide-ranging project with the general title Indra's Net or Hologography. The definition of the latter term is closely modelled on that for 'holography' in the Oxford English Dictionary:

    Hologography. A pattern of language produced when the words of a given text are glossed, paraphrased, etymologized, acrostically or otherwise transformed, and such transformations are allowed to interfere with the words of the given text; a set of rules, a machine or a computer program which defines or displays such a pattern.

Indra's Net - a concept originating in Hinduism - is 'a network of jewels that not only reflect the images in every other jewel, but also the multiple images in the others.'

This Net was a metaphor for universal structure and was used by the Chinese Huayan Buddhists to exemplify the 'interpenetration and mutual identification' of underlying substance and specific form. More can be garnered about the concept of Indra's Net from the mesostic piece, 'An Essay on the Golden Lion'.


Programmatological works from Indra's Net have been set up as installations on a number of occasions (see IN CV for details). These installations run on one or more Apple Macintosh computers in a public or gallery space, spanning the Chinese wall between literary and visual art.

Typically, generated texts are projected on to the walls of the space, with a mouse or other pointing device available on a simple plinth, allowing the reader to pause and transact with the display. Once a reader ceases to control the installation, it will, after a short time, continue to generate text automatically.

Transactions enabled in current works allow readers to select texts for performance; access explanatory material on the various works and underlying procedures; interfere with and redirect the 'reading' of a piece; and alter certain factors affecting the generation of the work.

In a number of recent works, for example Book Unbound and Reveal Code, readers may select phrases and feed them back into the process. Thus they are able both to compose new works and alter, irreversibly, the nature of the installed piece.

Works from 'Indra's Net' have also been presented as performance readings with writer/collaborators performing with the literary object as the programmatological process generates new text.


Currently, two paper publications from Indra's Net are available:
    'Under it All: texts, hologography, afterword', Many Press, New Series no. 3 (London: Many Press, 1993. - corresponds to the Collocations disk).

    'An Essay on the Golden Lion: Han-Shan in Indra's Net', Under the Moon Series 2/1 (Edinburgh: Morning Star Publications, 1995).


John Cayley. 'MaMoPo by PoLiOu: Machine Modulated Poetry by Potential Literary Outlaws.' The Writing and Computers Newsletter, No. 12, Nov. 1995.

Henry Y H Zhao. 'Yuehan Kai Ji[an] de "Jibianshi" (The "Machine Modulated Poetry" of John Cayley.' Dangdai (Contemporary, Taiwan), 1995.11.1, pp. 4-7. (In Chinese.)

John Cayley. 'Pressing the "Reveal Code" Key.' EJournal, vol. 6, no. 1 ("an all-electronic, e-mail delivered, peer-reviewed, academic periodical" - to subscribe, send 'sub ejrnl' to:; to get vol. 6, no. 1, send 'get ejrnl V6N1' to the same address, or visit the Web site at:, Mar 1996.

John Cayley. 'Beyond Codexspace: Potentialities of Literary Cybertext.' Visible Language, 3.2 (Oct. 1996) pp. 164-183.

Espen Aarseth. 'Aporia and Epiphany in Doom and "The Speaking Clock": The Temporality of Ergodic Art.', in Marie-Laure Ryan ed. The Discourse of Cyberspace (Indiana University Press, 1997).

Espen Aarseth. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1997. (Discusses, in particular, 'Book Unbound'.)

John Cayley. 'Hypertext/Cybertext/Poetext.' Forthcoming in the proceedings of 'Assembling Alternatives: An International Poetry Conference/Festival' (Wesleyan University Press, 1997). Also available on the Web at:

John Cayley. '"The King is Dead: Long Live the King": a review of Hypertext '97', The Electronic Book Review, number 5, , 1997; and forthcoming in mute (London, Fall 1997).

John Cayley. '"Why did people make things like this..."' The Electronic Book Review, number 5, , 1997.

Interview (on my cybertextual and translation work and undertaken by Fiona Templeton and Caroline Bergvall), forthcoming in The Edinburgh Review, Edinburgh, fall 1997.

(Publications from Indra's Net in disk format are in the collection of the National Art Library housed at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK where they can be made available to readers.)

WRITER | Up | Next

John Cayley is a poet, literary translator and the founder editor of The Wellsweep Press, which, since 1988, has specialized in the publication of literary translation from Chinese. He has worked as curator in the Chinese section of the British Library and, more recently, for a specialist bookseller and publisher, Han-Shan Tang Books. His background in computing dates from 1978 when he undertook post-graduate work on the linguistic analysis of classical Chinese style. His original poetry and translations have appeared in numerous magazines, with major contributions to 'Looking Out From Death: the new Chinese poetry of Duoduo' (Bloomsbury, 1989) and Gu Cheng, 'Selected Poems: an authorized translation' (Renditions, 1990). Recently he has co-edited 'Abandoned Wine: Chinese Writing Today, 2' (Wellsweep, 1997). A book of more conventional poetic writing and translations, 'Ink Bamboo', is published by Agenda Editions & Bellew Publishing, (London, 1996).


This kind of machine modulated poetry is virtually unknown although its presence and influence is likely to grow. There are manual, paper- and book-based precedents for the type of texts which are generated and displayed by Cayley's coverless books. To cite some of the most prominent:
    William Burroughs and Brion Gysin produced their 'cut-up' works in post-war Paris;

    Jackson Mac Low in the United States has created a substantial and important body of process-based work,

    as have certain artists of the Fluxus group, particularly Emmett Williams;

    and 'Indra's Net' also shares characteristics with work by a group of writers in France who experiment with 'constrictive form', the 'OuLiPo' (Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle, founded in 1961 by Raymond Queneau; best-known members - to English readers - Georges Perec and Harry Mathews).

The well-known critic, Hugh Kenner and Joseph O'Rourke produced an interesting program called 'Travesty' (Byte, Nov. 1984) which modulated any piece of language fed into in it by reproducing patterns of letters or words which the program found in a text at different user-definable levels or 'orders'. The procedure is different from Cayley's collocational processes but produces similar results at certain (higher) orders.

More recently, C. O. Hartman, also a poet and critic, programmed varieties of Jackson Mac Low's 'diastic' procedures which again, entirely independently, are similar to the Indra's Net mesostic processes. Mac Low's diastics, pure and simple, can be studied in his 'The Virginia Woolf Poems' (Providence: Burning Deck, 1985). Hartman's contribution was later brought to bear in Mac Low's 'Mertzgedicte' (Station Hill, n.d. ?1994).

Most recently, Hartman has published 'Sentences' (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon, 1995), bringing all these developments together in a published form.

Indra's Net clearly also bears a relationship to the burgeoning world of hypertext literature (see the links through Robert Kendall's site, below).

The following are a few active writers of 'machine modulated poetry'. They are all also working on their own self-definitions and theoretical positions and I refer you to their work itself.

Jim Rosenberg. Essential. Intergrams. Diffractions through.... Challenges to comfortable notions of link-node hypertext and static lexia.

Eduardo Kac. Who also makes 'actual', visual holograms of poetic work or 'holopoems'.

Robert Kendall. Early explorer of kinetic poetry on the programmaton with an excellent web site of relevant resources and links.

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