Did Charles Bukowski Really Say, "Find What You Love and Let it Kill You?"
One of the memes annoying me on Facebook
UPDATE: When this article originally ran we failed to credit the creator of the above image, Richard Tito. See more of his art here.
If you've been on Facebook in the last several months then you've probably seen the quote, "Find what you love and let it kill you." It's usually attributed to the drunken brilliance of poet Charles Bukowski. The question is, is it a legit quote?
This came up because the quote is the title of the latest EP from Linus Pauling Quartet. Singer Ramon Medina contacted me regarding the quote, asking that I use some journalism powers to try and confirm the origin before he told everyone that Bukowski was not the source as Facebook memes would have us believe. Together we did some digging.
Supposedly, the quote is from one of Bukowski's numerous letters, and reads...
Find what you love and let it kill you. Let it drain from you your all. Let it cling onto your back and weigh you down into eventual nothingness. Let it kill you, and let it devour your remains.
For all things will kill you, both slowly and fastly, but it's much better to be killed by a lover.
Falsely yours, Henry Charles Bukowski"
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It's worth noting that this question has been earnestly (And somewhat venomously) debated on Bukowski forums. These are people that know the work of the poet far better than I, but I did decide to spend a day looking through he letter archive on Bukowski.net. There are well over 100 preserved letters on the site in pdf form, and I looked at every single one. The letter doesn't appear there, and if it appears in any of the books of Bukowski's letters then none of his fans have been able to find it.
One forum user offered a "signed, numbered Black Sparrow Bukowski book, along with a hundred dollar bill to use as a bookmark" to anyone that can produce proof of the quote. The prize has not been claimed.
In reality the letter does not follow anything like Bukowski's style. He always used the person's name in the salutations, even for first time writers, and he rarely if ever signed his full name. The tone seems off as well, but that's a matter of opinion.
Then there was the answer from Bukowski.net about contacting his estate over the matter...
His "estate" is one old woman who couldn't tell you why some random Facebook poster first attributed it to Bukowski. If you're looking for that information you have to track down the original source of the attribution, which seems like it would be a lot more work than it's worth.
So where did the quote come from?
The earliest source we could find for the phrase came from the April 1998 issue of CMJ New Music Monthly. In it David Grubbs interviewed Van Dyke Parks. Parks was asked about how he went about crafting a song, and he went on a roundabout answer involving trial and error and a fear that something wouldn't work.
"It's like my friend Kinky Friedman said," mused Parks. "You've got to find what you love and let it kill you. I don't think any of us should ever forget that."
When contacted about Friedman being the original source, Friedman's publicist Cleve Hattersley responded, "Kinky has assured me it is a pure Kinky-ism."
In light of other evidence we're going to have to conclude that the misattributed quote actually belongs to our own Kinky Friedman, and not poet Charles Bukowski. If you have evidence otherwise, there's a guy who has a $100 for you.
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