What goes into making a poet? For Jeanne Minahan McGinn '83, Springsteen's "Thunder Road" marks the beginning. She recalls her older brothers brandishing the song's lyric sheet, saying, "Admit it! This is poetry!"
At Bucknell, other art forms enthralled her as she balanced her English studies with playing both field hockey and lacrosse. "I could have minored in art," she recalls. "My teammates would laugh when I showed up with paint on me." Poetry took a stronger hold than painting: hearing Gerard Manley Hopkins' "The Windhover" in Pauline Fletcher's class entranced her, rerouting plans to enter law school.
After graduating, centuries' worth of Ireland's poets cast their spell as she studied in Cork, and upon returning to the United States and pursuing a journalism career, her devotion to the written word detoured her once again, to a Ph.D. at Bryn Mawr College.
"It forced me to commit more time to poetry," McGinn says of her doctoral studies, and her commitment remains strong: She writes every morning, carving out time from her work as professor and chair of liberal arts at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, where her teaching fleshes out the education of some of the world's top young musicians.
Her latest poetic phase has been unsought but rewarding: numerous composers — including 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winner Jennifer Higdon, McGinn's colleague at Curtis — have set her verse to music, with "The Singing Rooms," Higdon's setting of six poems for choir, orchestra and violin soloist, receiving performances worldwide.
McGinn's poems, Higdon says, "don't come on strong or scream for attention. Rather, they present a picture that invites exploring." Their latest collaboration sets short poems, styled as telegrams, for a cappella chorus. One titled "Telegram to my Career" hints at McGinn's wonder at her unlikely path: "Not what I meant or thought."