ROBERT FROST used to advise young aspirants not to go into the arts unless they had "a snout for punishment." Sylvia Plath suffered, God knows, her share of punishment--some of it self-administered--but all the memoirs agree, and these journals bear it out, that she didn't have much of a snout. You could make a good case for a view of Plath's work as a poetry of incompleteness, of self-surgery, even, as Irvin Ehrenpreis has recently suggested, a poetry of the self as prosthesis, as a willful assemblage of ticktock inventory: First, are you our sort of person? Do you wear A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch, A brace or a hook, Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch, Stitches to show something's missing? No, no? Then How can we give you a thing?

("The Applicant")

To have known Sylvia Plath in her lifetime hardly helps this reviewer reconcile the selves looming out of her claustrophobic, self-lacerating journals. These are as different as they could be from the gee-whiz braggadocio of Letters Home: these are the notes of a worker, busy as the bumblebees her father had been so expert on. In Ted Hughes' short foreword he speaks of Plath's work habits as a process of nearly Islamic fanaticism, a wish to strip off everything to get at the true self, though it was a self she masked in a hundred ways and which no one, not even Hughes, was ever completely shown, as he himself confides. Other witnesses who knew her well enough would bear him out.

It may be that the quest in all of Plath's poetry was to discover two things: whether she herself was real; whether other people were. The journals give little evidence that she understood others. Plath's friends, even those closest to her, hardly ever receive a kind word in the journals, except when being useful or admiring. Sylvia's mother is praised for her maternal devotion--but then, in psychotherapy, poor Mrs. Plath is as deeply excoriated as the rest: I hate my mother in order to live free. The journal keeper could hardly be more self-centered, mean-spirited, narrowly ambitious, envious of reputations like May Swenson's or (especially) Adrienne Rich's. Sometimes she speaks warmly of men, teachers and lovers, who enter her life as mentor and protectors. Ted Hughes himself is described as titan, genius, emperor. She washes his feet, types his poems, irons his shirts, and does all that a girl can do to feel greater happiness for his successes than her own. But women? Women are competitors.

The real subject here (no headlines, no public events, no leakage from the real world) is writing, writing and success. Success was her true worship, a bitchier goddess than William James had imagined. To make herself a poet (which meant making herself complete) was one thing; but to make herself successful was the conscious aim. She had won every scholarship and contest, had been accepted by Harper's at 21, by The Atlantic at 23, by The New Yorker at 25. Yet none of these ribands-- and here is the primum mobile of the horror in her work and her fate --sufficed to keep her from feeling like a numb, blind, blank-eyed, stony, earthenware head, all words and phrases that recur with obsessive frequency. Like a welder, she must super-heat herself into completeness: "I catch up: each night, now, I must capture one taste, one touch, one vision from the ruck of the day's garbage. How all this life would vanish, evaporate, if I didn't clutch at it, cling to it, while I still remember some twinge of glory. . . . Hours of work. Who am I?" It is no wonder, perhaps, that when she sent the results of such efforts to Marianne Moore to get a fellowship recommendation, Miss Moore replied, "don't be so grisly . . . you are too unrelenting," and added some "pointed remarks about 'typing being a bugbear.' "

At other moments, detecting her own shortcomings in personal relations, Plath composed pathetic lists of how to improve her conduct, one of which concludes, "Don't blab too much--listen more; sympathize and 'understand' people." But mostly the journals are crammed with plans, plans for work, plans for prizes, plans for success, plans to be professional. The true vitality was reserved for her poems, but the Journals are full of what Jane Davison, one of Sylvia Plath's Smith classmates, described as "the dangerous illusion we shared, a belief in unlimited possibilities that was, I fear, closer to greed than to innocence."

Without dwelling on the checkered posthumous publishing history of Sylvia Plath's works, I think the Journals can hardly be counted among the important items in the Plath catalogue. Their biographical significance, given their vacuous self-absorption, consists mainly in the light they throw on Plath's suspect ambitions for herself. Their writing style inadvertently repeats some of the major metaphor-chains in her poetry. But by any reasonable comparison with Plath's finished work, this is a depressing bore, scrapings of the last bits of dried flesh from the empty hide of the poet. She was, after all, an artist, not merely a symbol of suffering and self-injurious womankind, nor the whipped egg-white that clarified the boiling broth of early feminism. We value artists for the work they finish, for their insistence on perfection, on truthfulness. How can we content ourselves, then, with a book so riddled with editorial expurgations, with omissions that stud the text like angry scars, with allusions to destroyed and "disappeared" parts of the journals?

It reminds us of all the "authorized" Plath biographies that never got written, and of the one awful unauthorized one that did, and of the nearly 20 years that passed after Plath's death before her Collected Poems were published in 1981. Couldn't there be some malign witchcraft here, something working as hard to cover up the poet's true accomplishment as Sylvia Plath did to dig her true self out of the sand? Does anyone imagine that Sylvia Plath herself, had she lived, would have permitted these journals to be set in type?