The reading of an unpublished poem by William Stafford figures to be a highlight of an evening dedicated to Stafford, Oregon's former poet laureate.

Stafford fan Earl Showerman, who lives near Jacksonville, plans to read "At Layser Cave," a poem Stafford wrote in 1990 after spending a day in a recently discovered cave that was a site of human habitation for thousands of years.

The event is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 29, in the Meese Room of Southern Oregon University's Hannon Library and is sponsored by Friends of William Stafford. Several local poets plan to read, including Pepper Trail, Amy Miller, Angela Decker, Michael Jenkins, Julian Spalding and Samara Diad. The program will begin with a live cello performance by composer Daniel Sperry. Audience members are also invited to read a favorite Stafford poem. 

Stafford, one of the Northwest's most famous writers, taught at Lewis and Clark College for many years. He was appointed consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress in 1970 and was Oregon's poet laureate from 1975 to 1990. In 1992, he won the Western States Book Award for lifetime achievement in poetry.

"Stafford had a friend in the Park Service who invited him to a one-day retreat at the cave," Showerman says. "They sat in silence, and everybody was encouraged to write their impressions."

Stafford wrote the poem and gave a copy to his friend, who copied it and sent it to Showerman.

"It's very meditative," Showerman says. "It's maybe one moment you get the sense of how it must have been."

The cave, which is considered one of the most significant archaeological sites in western Washington, was discovered by forest worker Tim Layser in 1982 in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest near Mount St. Helens, south of Randle, Wash.

Experts say the cave was used as long as 7,000 years ago by American Indians, who left tools and bones at the site. Traces of a number of ancient campsites have been found in the area. Work by archaeologists has shown that a volcanic eruption 3,500 years ago buried some native settlements beneath a thick layer of pumice.

At one point in the poem, Stafford, who typically wrote in a conversational tone, wrote of the people who used the cave down through the centuries: "When they peered, as we do past a wintry day, did their eyes, as ours do, try to squint farther than the sun?"

"He uses the word 'squint' a lot," says Showerman, who met Stafford in Portland a few years before his death in 1993.

Showerman says the poem's structure, a series of images ending in a silent moment, illustrates Stafford's idea of the "golden thread." It's a metaphor he borrowed from the English poet William Blake, who wrote:

"I give you the end of a golden string, just wind it into a ball. It will lead you in at Heaven's gate, built in Jerusalem's wall."

Showerman says Stafford expressed the belief that every thread leads to a poem.

Reach Medford freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.