Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Johnny Be Good: The Poetry of 21 Jump Street

Poetry & Popular Culture takes a break from the poetry of American highways today and turns its attention, instead, to the poetry of another street—21 Jumpstreet, the late 80's FOX t.v. drama that "focused on a squad of youthful-looking undercover police officers investigating crimes in high schools and other teenage venues." It turns out the show was more than just a vehicle for Johnny Depp; it was a vehicle for poetry as well.

Now, P&PC is making this judgment based only on the two episodes that follow the pilot, "America, What a Town" and "Don't Pet the Teacher." That's as far as we've gotten to this point. But go back and watch them yourselves. Near the beginning of "America, What a Town," as Depp goes off about the evils of automobile insurance, you'll find the words to Dorothy Parker's poem "Resume" written in red paint on the walls of Jump Street Chapel, secret headquarters of the big-haired, baby-faced Tommy Hanson (Depp) and crew:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

The rest of Jump Street Chapel's walls are covered in posters of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and Jimi Hendrix, but Parker's verse fits right in, especially as it appears to have been written by hand in all capital letters—a script that recalls the graffiti font of the show's title and that to some extent casts poetry reading as an outsider or undercover activity.

The real treat, however, comes in the next episode, "Don't Pet the Teacher," in which the undercover Depp falls for Miss S. Chadwick, the hottie 20-something high school English teacher at South Central High. Chadwick, it happens, is also the object of attention for a couple of more nefarious characters who are vandalizing the school and scalping tickets to see Van Halen. Later in the show, in fact, one of those suspects sends Miss Chadwick a love note misquoting Lord Byron—or so Miss Chadwick informs us without revealing either the source poem or the nature of the mistake. When we first see her in action—hear her in action, rather—it is from Depp's point of view as he walks down the hall to class on the first day of his undercover assignment. Chadwick is in the middle of a lecture on, of all things, contemporary poetry. Her voice echoes through the halls as she describes, in fits and starts that sound as much like linebreaks as they do rhetorically effective pauses, the work of an unnamed poet:

"...and his imagery and rhythms are still considered today some of the most urgent in contemporary poetry. So take a few minutes now to read this short work, and read it a couple of times, paying specific attention to his layers of imagery and how those images collectively build to their own inner conclusions..."

At this point, Depp shows up at the classroom door and puts a temporary stop to Miss Chadwick's lesson. Later on, we see the names of Ezra Pound (pictured to the left) and Carl Sandburg (not pictured to the left) written on the chalkboard, and we see what appear to be poems written on, and tacked above, the chalkboards. What a classroom! In the end, as befits a crime drama, we find out who's been stalking Miss Chadwick and who's been vandalizing the school. Miss Chadwick finds out that Depp's really working undercover and is thus an eligible suitor. But despite the urgency of his imagery and rhythms, we never do find out the name of the poet whom Chadwick is describing in her lecture. In the end, it seems, poetry is the only place with any mystery left.