"Poetry is not just something written on the page. Poetry is an oral art," says Irving Layton, one of Canada's foremost poets.

He will share that oral art tonight at 7:30 in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Auditorium.

Layton, who taught for 44 years at York University in Toronto, is a perfectionist about his readings. "The poems have to hit the auditor's soul, his mind, above all his emotions, his heart," he says. "If it doesn't touch his heart in some way, if it doesn't change his pulse beat in some way, then you haven't written a poem."

In a reading, he says, "I can know whether my poems are taking root in an auditor's heart or his soul. It gives me a chance to see just how effective my sounds are."

Though Layton compares tried and tested poems to "an old hickory stick that you feel you can lean on with some degree of security," his reading will draw mainly from the most recent of his 40 published collections, "Final Reckoning" and "Fortunate Exile."

The presentation is cosponsored by the International Poetry Forum of Pittsburgh and the Smithsonian Resident Associate Program and will include time for audience questions.

For reservations and information call 357-3030.