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BOOK REVIEW / Gone to inner-inner land: 'The Penguin Book of the Beats' - ed Ann Charters: 8.99 pounds

ROBERT LOWELL'S word for the Fifties was 'tranquillised', and that seems about right: Eisenhower and Macmillan, Doris Day and Valium, Elvis and Tommy Steele, New Orleans jazz recycled by white middle- class males not long out of public school. Exhausted by war, everyone consented to live in whatever utilities could be rigged up in place of the topless towers.

The inevitable reaction came, in Britain, in the form of the Angry Young Men, and, in America, through the neo-barbaric yawp of the Beats, who wolfed down narcotics and Zen and who took to the road and the stock-car in search of unrespectability. Nowadays it all looks as cosy, predictable and long-ago as a sci-fi cover or a jostle of rubber plants in a coffee bar, but at the time Ginsberg's Howl and Kerouac's On The Road looked like posture for real combat, a serious challenge to the gods of decency in whose name the battle had raged. Ann Charters's anthology presents an intriguing survey of the whole inflated phenomenon.

Mailer, borrowing from black jazz culture, called it a Hip Generation - not to be confused with Sixties hippies. Ginsberg's coinage was The Subterraneans. Burroughs said he was 'shitting out my educated Middlewest background . . . I say the most horrible things I can think of'. Neil Cassady reported: 'I'm beyond thinking straightly. I . . . have gone to inner-inner land'.

There was a fraction of substance (in both senses) to a monstrous deal of PR from first to last. But the best of Ginsberg, now a beatific oldie all set for canonisation by the Library of Congress, looks to have survival value, and so does the manic prose of Burroughs: 'I can feel the heat closing in, feel them out there making their moves, setting up their devil doll stool pigeons, crooning over my spoon and dropper I throw away at Washington Square Station'. Kerouac and Cassady have worn less well, though both could occasionally turn a stylish sentence. The poets mostly whinge about the grown-ups and tell each other how wonderful they are.

You need an uncommon amount of benevolence to stay with Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, Tuli Kupferberg, Ed Sanders, Michael McClure for more than a page or two. Charters recruits aspects of Mailer, Ken Kesey and Dylan to the cause, and interestingly extends the franchise to try and cover some of the little-known women writers of the period, such as Carolyn Cassady, Diane DiPrima, Joyce Johnson, Brenda Frazer. But anyone hoping to find neglected talent, or a different slant on the male egos up for beatitude, will be disappointed: 'I am a woman and my poems / are woman's: easy to say this. the female is ductile /. . . built for masochistic / calm' (DiPrima).

Still, as with our own lucky and angry Jims, someone had to shout a few obscenities in the direction of American conformity. And Allen Ginsberg's stand against red-neckery and homophobia ('I'm putting my crooked shoulder to the wheel') was as courageous and timely as all those Eastern European deviations from socialist realism.