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Richard Exner 1929 – 2008

Scholar and Poet

"La Nuit" by Aristide Maillol.

Dr. Richard Exner, German poet, prose author, translator, and scholar of German literature, died on July 16, 2008, in Berlin, but his legacy is alive and well.

Born in Niedersachswerfen, Germany, on May 13, 1929, Richard Exner came to the United States in 1950, receiving a PhD in German Literature from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, in 1957. Before joining the Department of Germanic, Slavic, and Semitic Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1965, Richard Exner taught at the University of Southern California, the University of Rochester, Princeton University, and Oberlin College.

On the occasion of his nomination for the UCSB Faculty Research Lectureship, his career as scholar, teacher, and poet was summed up succinctly by the department chair: “Professor Exner is the rare combination of a sensitive and incisive literary critic and a poet in his own right. He is shaping not only the reception of German literature in the United States but also contemporary literature in Germany and Austria, both by his criticism and his poetry.”

As an author who not only published numerous scholarly books and articles on German literature, but also translations of English poetry into German and of German poetry into English, Richard Exner was much sought out by graduate students in German, French, and English. Several students who now teach at Brown University, at Southwestern University, and at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, came to UCSB from the East Coast only to study with Richard. One of them wrote: “Richard Exner was the most sensitive reader of texts, a passionate teacher and a generous adviser, someone whose take on the world combined enlightened skepticism and humor with an enduring curiosity.”

As colleagues, we knew him as an incisive and helpful critic of our work and as an entertaining raconteur on social occasions. Once when we were sitting together at his house and talking with a group of graduate students about our experiences as PhD students, Richard, in his characteristic ironic and self-deprecating manner, told an anecdote about his relationship to Ludwig Markuse, the Berlin philosopher and critic of the 1920s whose star student Richard had been at the USC Department of German. Richard had given Markuse his essay on Freud, a careful and, he thought, brilliantly formulated execution of a class assignment. The philosopher returned it saying: “Exner, spare me your prose. Just let me have the quotations.”

The book Poetry Poetics Translation: Festschrift in Honor of Richard Exner, edited by his colleagues Laurence A. Rickels and Ursula Mahlendorf when he retired in 1992, is testimony to his international renown as both a scholar and a poet. It contains contributions by more than 40 friends, students, and colleagues from this country and abroad. In the introduction, the editors write about his work as a poet: “What spoke out in Exner’s poetry from the 1980 publication of Fast ein Gespr¤ch, Almost Talking to One Another, was a voice that certainly his generation recognized as its own, the voice of conscience that would not let the horrors of Auschwitz, Dresden, Hiroshima settle with history like one more veil of dust.”

In Richard Exner’s memory and with friendly permission by his translator, Roger Lydon, we publish an excerpt from the last and seventh canto of his work Night/Die Nacht: Seven Cantos, 2001, with an English translation by Alan MacDougall and Roger Lydon, a cycle of poems inspired by Aristide Maillol’s bronze statue “La nuit”/”The Night,” and dedicated to Richard’s two daughters. To see the full canto, go to independent.com/cantovii.

After his retirement, Richard Exner lived in Munich and Berlin, publishing and reading his poetry to an ever widening circle of readers and listeners. He is survived by his partner, Annegret Stein, and two daughters, Bettina Exner Mara and Antonia Exner.

Canto VII: The Last Night

Yours will be

the last face

I see. I

knew it as I

lay beneath

you.

Abandoned Night,

I twisted myself

into you.

How lonely you

must have been

to enclose yourself

in stone. But

you have given

birth and baptized

with tears.

Abandoned Night

with the beautiful

proffered body

the chastely plaited

hair in which

your child never

hid.

Night, mother,

surrendered creature, how

exposed you were. That

you had to give birth

not to joy, or small

laughing cherubs, but

from pure sadness

to a child of tears, of

fire.

Night,

I did not suffocate

in the stony breech

of your arms and thighs.

I had already been born and

was already breathing.

Psalms 139:15

My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately wrought in the depths of the earth.

. . . and then you

opened, created space,

created new sadness, created

an impenetrable cloak of

despair around me and hurled me

into the

Night.

Night

wait for

me. The exile

is always on the

homeward journey. His

arrival is a myth:

But then, we are

already

there.

Ultimate Night,

whoever comes, never to go

away again, wants to sleep himself alert

beside you, to bring your stone

body to white heat once again and feel

its seething, his head, his head already extending

out of you, his mouth already reaching

dawn’s eyelashes.

Arrival once more.

Have mercy.

Night,

tonight

we lie together

on the uplands

wasted by heat

and cold.

Here the soul

steels itself

for the fire and

the tremor of

light.

We know that we have passed from death into life,

because we love one another.

He who loves not his brother abides in death.

1 John 3:14

I lay down

the weapons of

darkness.

Ultimate Night, I do not want to

return to your womb.

I want to stretch out,

become a hand seizing the invisible,

hard, against the wood,

my body upon your limbs.

While I am still alive, take

your arms off your knees.

You have long since

woven my

shroud.

Look at me.

I sense that above

you sadness ceases

at last. I hear

children’s laughter.

Bend

lower. Even with

your eyes closed

you will feel

me.

My gaze

rises constantly

to your face.

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