Patten was born in Bootle, near the Liverpool docks. He attended Sefton Park School in the Smithdown Road area of Liverpool, where his early poetic writing was encouraged. He left school at fifteen and began work for The Bootle Times writing a column on popular music.
Together with the other two Liverpool poets, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri, Patten published The Mersey Sound in 1967. One of the best-selling poetry anthologies of modern times, The Mersey Sound aimed to make poetry accessible to a broader audience. It has been described as the most significant anthology of the twentieth century. Together with Henri and McGough, Patten was awarded the Freedom of the City of Liverpool in 2001.
Patten's first published volumes of poems were Little Johnny's Confession (1967) and Notes to the Hurrying Man (1969). The later collections Storm Damage (1988) and Armada (1996) are more varied, the latter featuring a sequence of poems concerning the death of his mother and memories of his childhood. Armada is perhaps Patten's most mature and formal book, dispensing with much of the playfulness of former work. He has also written comic verse for children, notably Gargling With Jelly and Thawing Frozen Frogs.
Patten's style is generally lyrical and his subjects are primarily love and relationships. His 1981 collection Love Poems draws together his best work in this area from the previous sixteen years. Charles Causley commented that he "reveals a sensibility profoundly aware of the ever-present possibility of the magical and the miraculous, as well as of the granite-hard realities. These are undiluted poems, beautifully calculated, informed - even in their darkest moments - with courage and hope."