"It is a very great loss, a sad and melancholy thing that will be hard to balance. Writers like Sarah Kirsch and Jurek Becker, we will not have again for another era."

The lament is that of Guenther Kunert, a leading East German poet, author and film producer.

He is also one of the few major cultural figures left in this country after a year in which the communist regime got rid of many critics by forcing or encouraging about two dozen noted authors, musicians and theater personalities -- people lik Kirsch and Becker -- to go into exile in the West.

The use of forced exile has spread throughout Eastern Europe, especially in the last two years, as a way to deal with people who challenged repressive governments to live up to the human rights provisions that 33 European nations, including the Soviet Bloc and the United States and Canada, signed at Helsinki in 1975.

The exit of what amounts to a Who's Who of German arts and letters clearly has hurt the international image of the regime, which wants to build up an East German cultural, as well as economic, identity. Yet the potential for stirring discontent in this already edgy society was viewed as too much of a danger.

While dissidents in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia have gotten more attention than the East Germans in the past two years, the fact that more than 100,000 East GErmans showed up at the West German liaison office in East Berlin last year to inquire about leaving, prompted by the Helsinki accords, amounts to perhaps the biggest single display of uneasiness throughout the entire Soviet bloc.

East Germany may be the most successful practitioner of forced exile for dissidents. But this country, in one very important way, is different from the rest and Kunert is also different from some of his departed colleagues. In that sense he illustrates the problem facing people whose lives are tied up in expressing the emotions of their homeland yet must decide whether to stay or leave.

When a Czech or Polish dissident writer leaves his homeland, there is no other place where he or she can write in his or her own language. For an East German, there is always the western half of this divided country. So the fear of being forcd to leave is not so great. Yet the differences in postwar culture are substantial, adding another dimension to the torment of the East German critic.

Kunert rejects all the easy labels. He is a Marxist but also clearly critical of the brand of communism practiced here.

He was among the first to sign the public protest over the forced exile of poet-singer Wolf Biermann in November 1976, a protest which eventually led to harrassment and exile of several of the signers. He has had his problems with the regime but thus far it has not tried to force him out and, thus far, he doesn't want to go.

"The most important thing for me is do I have the possibility to write. So far, I can say, yes. Then I must ask if it is possible to publish what I write, and on this I'm hopeful."

Why the government hasn't forced him out "is for the government to answer. Sometimes it seems like a miracle. Perhaps the intention of some of the criticism was understood as helpful and perhaps this was missed in some other writers' criticism. Sometimes the relation of a writer to his society, its culture and bureaucracy becomes totally broken so there is no chance for him to live as a writer in that society. I haven't reached this point yet."

Yet Kunert rejects the dramatic image of the lonely writer staying behind to battle from within and change his society.

"That is a false picture because it implies the role and power of an author that doesn't exist anymore. Writers cannot have that 19th century position of a people's tribune. A writer today is more a person who preserves language and that means protecting the ability possibility to think.

"Maybe it sounds pretentious but my decision to stay depends more on my readers. There are many among them who need what I write. The situation for a writer in a socialist country is different from others. . . They must write around the edges of things . . . And that's why I think I'm a part of this society, because I'm needed.

"In a society like this, where religion and transcedence are absolutely destroyed and all aims are only materialistic, people feel at a certain time an empty room in themselves and that they must fill it up. The first thing they meet in the search for a sense of life is literature.

"I know that no poem or literary work can give this sense by itself, but it can give the reader the impulse to find it, to get back to humanist values. So I try to discover my own humanity and I think that people can repeat that way of discovery, perhaps by reading my poems."

Kunert, at 49, is a small, pale man with sharp features and alert, darting eyes. He is half Jewish, descended from a great-grandfather who settled in the United States after the Civil War and returned afterward to his native Germany.

Kunert remains fascinated by the United States where he spent four months as a visiting professor at the University of Texas in 1972.

A book about those months and travels through the United States, which he calls "The Other Planet," is now in its third printing here, which is a rarity, with more than100,000 copies sold. Kunert writes of America with what he calls "critical love," and the book's sales testify to the enormous interest here in the United States beyond the television and movie stereotype, he says.

Yet Kunert has more than roots here that help explain why he wants to stay.

"I was born in Berlin and my history is here. It is a fixation. It is where my relatives were displaced. It is from here that they were taken to Poland to be killed. I grew up here in the years after the war in intense, anti-fascist circumstances. So, yes, I'm not sure I could be comfortable in West Germany. It is easier there to meet the murderers of yesterday. Here, I'm sure I will never meet in the train station SS Officer Krauser," the mythical Nazi security officer.

To an outsider, there seem to be other reasons too why he stays.

Kunert clearly lives better than most East Germans who, in turn, live better than most of their comrades elsewhere in Eastern Europe.

His home in this Berlin suburb is on a muddy, unpaved street. Yet it is a solid turn-of-the-century house with spacious, high-ceiling rooms. The walls are lined with watercolors and sketches done by Kunert and his wife and the shelves are packed not only with books but with collections of 19th century blue glass and antique toys that would bring huge prices in the shops of Georgetown or Manhattan.

Most importantly, however, Kunert can travel -- to the United STates or France or England, as he has done in recent years.

The inability to travel is the most overwhelming irritation -- especially among young people -- to the 17 million East Germans who are sealed into this country and the communist East.

The only ones allowed out -- except for the few privileged artists and business people -- are old-age pensioners whom the East German regime doesn't need anymore, a few hardship cases, and several thousand so-called "political prisoners" whom the government ransoms to West Germany yearly for about $15,000 a head in what is East Germany's biggest "cash crop."

A young writer in East Berlin, who declined use of his name, said that many of his colleagues were very moralistic rather than idealistic these days. They were in fact afraid and disapproving of some aspects of Western culture -- drugs, crime, unemployment, and the Western search for money They were indeed devoted to Western music and clothing. But, most of all, they were jealous of the right to travel, not so much to settle in the West but to go where they wanted.

A Berlin cab driver put it more succintly."We cannot travel, so we are not free. It's as simple as that. It stinks. The mood of the people is not good."

But how does the artist reflect the mood of the people in an authoritarian society?

Late in 1976, a film by Kunert called "Beethoven, Days in a Life," opened in East Berlin. It was a workmanlike film, focusing mostly on the brilliant musician's constant battles with the Viennese authorities who sought to isolate and repress him and his romantic ideas.

In the closing scene, a deaf and depressed Beethoven is filmed loading his possessions on a cart and moving down a street. Then, as the camera angle lengthens and widens, it is clear that the street is Karl Marx Allee in present-day East Berlin, with East German cars going by on both sides.

To many who saw it, the message seemed clear: Nothing has changed in the battle for control by authorities.

Kunert disputes that. He says he himself is not sure what the message or interpretation should be. "Some say maybe that it showed Beethoven now belonged to us, that he was integrated in our culture and society."

It's what Kunert calls "writing around the edges."