Walking is a Poetic Activity

Walking is often taken for granted in many of our lives, so we don’t take the time to look into how moving it can really be. 

Walking is not simply a form of exercise, nor is it simply a mode of transportation. It is an activity that includes both these aspects but extends far beyond.

In this post I’ll explore some of those larger meanings, in particular what travel writer Bruce Chatwin called “the sacramental aspects of walking.”

Walking as a Poetic Activity

Last week, I wrote about the travel writer Bruce Chatwin meeting the director Werner Herzog in Ghana to help out in adapting Chatwin’s book The Viceroy of Ouidah into Herzog’s film Cobra Verde.

This encounter was recorded in Chatwin’s book What Am I Doing Here,  and so is the following quote about him meeting the famed director:

“He was also the only person with whom I could have a one-to-one conversation on what I would call the sacramental aspect of walking. He and I share a belief that walking is not simply therapeutic for oneself but is a poetic activity that can cure the world of its ills. He sums up his position in a stern pronouncement: ‘Walking is virtue, tourism deadly sin.’”

Walking can help blow off steam –“just walk it off” we say to the troubled person as she or he paces back and forth in a repetitive line.  In this manner, it can be therapeutic, but as Chatwin reminds us it’s “not simply therapeutic”.

It extends beyond the domain of therapy. He calls it as a “poetic activity that can cure the world of its ills.” But what is a poetic activity and how might it cure the world of ills?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “poetry” is a noun with three main definitions:

  1. “Literary work in which the expression of feelings and ideas is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm”
  2. “A quality of beauty and intensity of emotion regarded as characteristic of poems”
  3. “Something regarded as comparable to poetry in its beauty”

Any activity that can be described as poetic must incorporate some, if not all, of these qualities. Walking, if seen as a poetic activity, would need to have an “intensity of emotion” and a “distinctive style and rhythm.”

From the same source, the word “cure” is defined as:

  1. “a substance or treatment that cures a disease or condition” (noun)
  2. “relieve (a person or animal) of the symptoms of a disease or condition” (verb)

The treatment of walking poetically with an intensity of emotion focused on “the world” could potentially cure it of some of its ills. Or at least that’s the hope.

Perhaps this hope  motivated Werner Herzog when, in 1974 he picked up the phone and heard a message that changed his life. As he describes in his short autobiographical film Portrait Werner Herzog:

“One winter this is how I got from Munich to Paris –around 800 – 900 kilometers –because someone very close to me was near her death. And I thought, if I traveled there on foot, I could save her. It was similar to a pilgrimage, and I’m sure that I will start off on a journey many more times, because it’s a different way of life, which is gone from nowadays’s habits.”

He chose the style and rhythm of shoes and walking to complement the intensity of emotion that came from hearing that “someone very close to me was near her death”.

The someone was Lotte Esiner, a renown film-critic and historian who was in indispensable source of inspiration for the young filmmaker.

The eternal stillness of death could perhaps be overcome through the simple movement of walking. It might seem outlandish, but it motivated him to explore the land in a way that led to one of his greatest creative achievements, the book Of Walking in Ice.

Labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral in France

A Response to Anxiety

The historian Morris Berman wrote a trilogy of books on alternative spirituality and the evolution of consciousness –Reenchantment of the World, Coming To Our Senses, and Wandering God.  In his last installment, Wandering God, he writes:

“Religion, wrote Bruce Chatwin, is a response to anxiety, and it is at least possible that movement, by eliminating anxiety in a whole number of ways, removes the need for religion as well.”

We can see by the simple example of people pacing back-and-forth how movement can eliminate anxiety on the physiological level. It also kick-starts the thinking process and gets the mind in motion.

Religion, it seems, emerged in order to mitigate the effects of anxiety. Most likely this anxiety was of the existential variety and had a lot to do with the fear of death.

In settled life people wanted a stable truth that could organize the chaos of existence and set down some rules. This type of truth was far different from the truth that arose in the nomadic context that humans existed in prior to the rise of agriculture.

“In the nomadic world,” Berman writes:

“… the tent is not tied to a territory but to an itinerary. Points are reached only to be left behind. The road to truth is always under construction; the going is the goal”


“For nomads, truth is a verb, something you live. No sooner are you at one point than an elaboration or revision suggests itself.”

Religion provided a factor of safety in settled life, but it also caused its own anxieties that made folks unsettled. So, once again, they turned to movement and to walking in particular.

Although there are plenty of others, two pilgrimages come to mind:

  1. The Hajj: This pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia is mandatory for all Muslims (with the financial wherewithal) to complete at least once in their life.  According to wikipedia, “the word Hajj means ‘to intend a journey’, which connotes both the outward act of a journey and the inward act of intentions”.
  2. Camino de Compostela: This pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain has been taken since the Middle Ages. Currently it sees upwards of 200,000 people, each with unique reasons for going and was popularized by the film The Way.

The use of walking as an activity far beyond simple exercise can be seen in the practice of silently walking around meditative labyrinths. These unicursal designs, like the one at Chartres Cathedral in France, are meant to be moved over slowly so as produce a powerful effect upon the mind and body.


Oftentimes our anxious emotions can solidify into forms that’s harmful to ourselves and those around us. Through the process of walking, perhaps, we can loosen that solidified form and dilute its harmful effects.

“Walk it off” as they say, “walk it off”.