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Very few people today take Beat poet Allen Ginsberg seriously, either as a literary or a political force. But thanks to "Ginsberg," Barry Miles' spree of a biography, it may be worthwhile chancing a second look at one of the more peculiar and influential figures of post-World War II letters.

That second look is worthwhile not so much because of Ginsberg's poetry, which used pinwheels of imagery and rags of free verse to chronicle his never-ending quest for enlightenment. Ginsberg's "Howl," "Kaddish," "Wichita Vortex Sutra" and the "Empty Mirror" poems were archetypes for some of the more impenetrable rock lyrics of the 1960s, and reeked as much of methedrine as of the muse. Besides, most Americans don't read poetry, don't listen to it unless it's rap, and generally don't feel that it materially affects their lives.The most interesting chapters of Miles' book chronicle Ginsberg's remarkable artistic alliance with authors Jack Kerouac, Frank Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and William S. Burroughs, known collectively as the "Beats" starting in the late 1940s. It explores the roots of such seminal Beat works as Kerouac's "On the Road" and "The Dharma Bums," Burroughs' "Naked Lunch," and Allen's own copious, iconoclastic writings.

Their world of all-night philosophy debates in Greenwich Village coffee houses is seductive in its innocence, idealism, fervency and dedication. They really believed that poetry could change the world or at least America, which they perceived as having gotten derailed somewhere along the way. If their verses could not get their nation back on track, at least it could mourn the passing of a kind of Camelot.

Inspired by a mystical vision brought on by reading William Blake poetry in a sunny Harlem tenement, Ginsberg embarked on a spiritual odyssey to points unknown.

The book's mood is startling similar to that of "On the Road" - compulsive, frenetic movement toward an uncertain destination. Ginsberg appears to have made his home in at least three dozen different places at various times. A substantial portion of his life was spent whizzing around the globe in planes, trains and automobiles.

Perhaps most resonant to a contemporary audience, Ginsberg naively embraced the euphoria of drugs and only later discovered their considerable dark side. Coincident with the publication of this biography, the nation is girding for what is being billed as a "war" against substances Ginsberg was largely responsible for championing.

In his 1956 poem "Howl," he wrote, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness-Starving, hysterical, naked-Who dragged themselves through the angry streets at dawn looking for a negro fix. . . ."

If he recognized that in '56, why did it take him so long to do something about it?

The answer is that Ginsberg was as innocent as a babe. He recognized too late that very few people have the strength of will or constitution to use narcotics without abusing them. He saw them only as another gateway. For all his mistakes, Ginsberg was helplessly open-minded, self-critical and inquisitive, always seeking fresh experiences, always searching for greater consciousness.